Bold asteroid-snatching plans to appear in NASA 2014 budget

Ars Technica » Scientific Method 2013-03-29

Keck Institute for Space Studies

Aviation Week is carrying the news that NASA's FY2014 budget will include a $100 million line item to start planning a robotic mission to snatch an asteroid and relocate it to near the Moon, where it could be studied up-close by NASA—and possibly even visited by astronauts (hat-tip to the Houston Chronicle's SciGuy blog for the news).

The idea is based on a report by the Keck Institute for Space Studies, which outlines an entire robotic mission to locate and retrieve an NEA—a Near Earth Asteroid—of about 500,000kg in mass and a diameter of about 7 meters. Such an asteroid would be a C-type or carbonaceous asteroid, and would have the consistency of "a dried mudball." The asteroid would be hauled back via a robotic probe and positioned in an orbit above the far side of the Moon at the second Earth-Moon Lagrange Point, where the vagaries of gravity and inertia would keep the asteroid in a roughly consistent location. Once positioned there, the asteroid would—at least in theory—be within the range of a manned visit.

To go out and grab the asteroid in the first place, the report recommends a probe weighing about 18,000 kg, which could be lofted into space using an existing launch vehicle (such as an Atlas V). Shifting 500,000 kg of mass with conventional rockets would require a tremendous amount of propellant to be carried along with the probe so, rather than chemical rockets, the probe would be equipped with a "~40-kW solar electric propulsion system with a specific impulse of 3,000 s."

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