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Published April 16, 2013

With the release of the 2014 federal budget by President Obama, it seems NASA has acquired the funding it needs to move forward with their latest, and by far, boldest mission in recent times. Included in the new budget is $105 million that will be used to begin a mission to identify and to capture a small asteroid to bring back to the Earth-Moon system.

That's right, if all goes well in the next few years, NASA will attempt to capture an asteroid and bring it near the Moon for further study. While the final cost is not yet known, it is believed to be less than the $2 billion calculated by certain analysts. Not only will this feat mark the first time humanity has successfully redirected the motion of an object in outer space, it also opens many doors for other scientific and economic opportunities. "We were surprised to find technically this is well within our reach to do," said Tom Jones, a former NASA astronaut turned research scientist at the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition. Mining in space? Not so far-fetched anymore.

The Plan

The plan involves launching a robotic spacecraft to a near-Earth asteroid, with the ultimate goal of towing it back to a stable lunar orbit. Ideally, this would be at Lagrange Point 2, an area between the Earth and the Moon where the gravity of both cancel each other out.

NASA will first need to find an asteroid to suit the mission's needs. An asteroid roughly 23 feet wide (7 meters) and 500 tons (551 tonnes) is their current goal. That would be big enough for the spacecraft to reach and to capture, but also small enough to burn up in the Earth's atmosphere if things go awry.

Next, the capture spacecraft will be launched into orbit, presumably using Hall thrusters, a type of ion engine that uses xenon gas charged in an electrical field as the method of acceleration. The spacecraft will spend a few years using the Moon's gravity to slingshot into deep space, where it will then travel to the asteroid.

Once the asteroid is in close proximity to the spacecraft, a 50-foot (15-meter) capture bag will be deployed that will envelope the asteroid completely. In order to accommodate the spinning motion of the asteroid, thrusters may need to be used to "de-spin" the asteroid to safely transport it back to a stable orbit around the Moon and Earth.

After towing the asteroid back to the Moon, NASA plans to send astronauts to the captured asteroid by 2021. The team, consisting of at least two astronauts, will be tasked with collecting samples and exploring the asteroid up close. This timetable falls within President Obama's plan to have astronauts sent to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025, ultimately culminating in a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s.

Implications

"This is part of what will be a much broader program," said U.S. Senator Bill Nelson. "The plan combines the science of mining an asteroid, along with developing ways to deflect one, along with providing a place to develop ways we can go to Mars."

In order to reach Mars, new technologies will need to be developed. If successful, this mission could provide both the experience and the technologies needed for future expeditions beyond the Moon. The mission already plans on using NASA's Orion capsule and the Space Launch System, both of which are being developed as successors to the Space Shuttle program. Any experience gained by traveling to the captured asteroid will inevitably benefit future expeditions to Mars or to its asteroid moons Phobos and Deimos. Even an expedition to the main asteroid belt could become plausible.

Furthermore, samples collected from the captured asteroid could provide insight into how the Solar System developed 4.5 billion years ago. Asteroids represent all the matter left over from the formation of the Solar System, masses of rock, dirt, metal, and the like that were unable to coalesce into planets like Earth or Mars. Due to their nature, samples from the asteroids will allow us to learn more about them just as samples from the Moon allowed us to learn more about its composition.

Another factor to consider is the possibility of near-Earth asteroids colliding with our planet in the near future. NASA currently has $20 million dedicated to the identification and tracking of near-Earth asteroids, a number that will increase if the 2014 budget is approved. This project will give NASA the experience it needs with asteroids in order to deal with other possible collisions, for example, the best way to deflect and change the course of a potential city or world killer. This is a possibility that became almost too close to reality when an asteroid exploded over a Russian city a few months ago.

Space Mining?

NASA has argued that this mission will not only allow us to learn more about asteroids, but it will be beneficial to all parties economically. Several space analysts believe that this mission could open the door to more private entrepreneurs taking the reins of space exploration from the money-restricted space agency. "If the current budget is flat or declining, NASA will go nowhere," said Tom Jones. "This could be the dawn of space mining. We have finite resources on Earth and this program might open the door for businesses interested in exploring space."

As resources run out on Earth, the stars will be the first place to look at to sustain our way of life. Capturing the asteroid is the first step, but it will not lead to any significant resources being mined and brought back to Earth. However, the first step is always the most important. If successful, private companies will become interested in the prospects of space exploration and mining, helping develop spacecraft (mining barges?) and tools (strip miners?), ultimately advancing humanity further in the field of space exploration.

So while the plan to capture an asteroid is only the beginning, it may be possible that, within our lifetime, we will be sending miners not to mines underground but to those among the stars.

Snickering
Cat lover and avid space know-it-all, I am a terrible gamer who consistently sucks at any game that requires aiming. As a result I play EVE Online, but I can also make a mighty fine omelette in Cooking Mama.

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