NASA Discusses Progress Reached So Far In Future Asteroid Mission
June 20, 2014

NASA Discusses Progress Reached So Far In Future Asteroid Mission

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

Proposed studies for NASA’s missions to capture and redirect an asteroid are set to kick off in July. The space agency said these studies should inform not only the future asteroid mission, but also future missions to Mars.

"With these system concept studies, we are taking the next steps to develop capabilities needed to send humans deeper into space than ever before, and ultimately to Mars, while testing new techniques to protect Earth from asteroids," said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.

The studies are for NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), which is slated to launch in 2019. The mission is based on two primary concepts: to grab a very small asteroid in open space and to collect a boulder-sized sample off of a much larger asteroid. The space agency said it is targeting asteroids less than 32 feet in size and plans to choose between the two concepts by late 2014.

There have been numerous proposals on how NASA might capture an asteroid, including using the gravitational force of a spacecraft to move the trajectory of the large asteroid slowly over time. Another potential plan involves using a ship’s solar electric ion propulsion system to push a space rock toward the Moon, when NASA would nudge it into a stable orbit.

Lindley Johnson, head of NASA's Near Earth Objects Program, told NBC News that in addition to scientific value – ARM could help protect Earth from a catastrophic impact.

"Unfortunately, what you see in Hollywood is not always reality," he said, adding, "the capabilities that we're looking at for demonstration by the robotic spacecraft are adding to our knowledge and techniques of what might be done for an asteroid that’s on a hazardous trajectory."

The asteroid mission announced a recent shot in the arm via the discovery of an optimal target, the space rock designated 2011 MD. The discovery was made using the Spitzer Space Telescope, which showed that 2011 MD is 20 feet in size and has a relatively low density.

Working mostly in the infrared spectrum, the space telescope has also played a major role in spotting planets outside our Solar System.

"Observing these elusive remnants that may date from the formation of our solar system as they come close to Earth, is expanding our understanding of our world and the space it resides in," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. "Closer study of these objects challenge our capabilities for future exploration and will help us test ways to protect our planet from impact. The Spitzer observatory is one of our tools to identify and characterize potential candidate targets for the asteroid mission."

"We're supporting the ARM mission with our observation program, and in turn the ARM mission can support our planetary defense objectives," Johnson added.

The NASA scientist also said he expects ARM to have an entire menagerie of potential targets as the launch date approaches.

"It won't be dozens, but it may be 10 or so by the time we get to make the decision," Johnson said.