For some time, NASA has been forthright about its plans to tow an asteroid closer to Earth for the sake of study. As part of their long-term goals, this plan calls for the capture of a Near Earth Object (NEO) and positioning it at one of two Lagrange Points before conducting research on it. And late last month, they released plans on how they intend to go about doing this.
The first step, picking and choosing a potential target, would be handled by the telescope known as the Wide Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). Launched in 2009, this telescope was charged with a two-year mission to image 99% of the visible sky in infrared wavelengths. Once this mission was successfully completed, NASA reassigned the craft a second four-month mission to track and discover near-Earth objects (NEOs).
Once that’s done, the next phase of the mission will involve launching an unmanned probe to intercept the NEO and drag it back into a retrievable position, probably by wrapping a bag around it. While this might sound improbable, keep in mind NEOs are rather small, and a bag of high-tensile material would do the trick. A crew would then be dispatched on an Orion capsule mated to the upcoming heavy rocket known as the Space Launch System to retrieve samples of the asteroid and return them to Earth.
Despite troubles getting the US Congress to approve a budget necessary to mount a capture mission, NASA remains committed to the plan, mainly because of the benefits it would entail. Many of these small asteroids are thought to contain minerals from the very early stages of the solar system’s formation, which means they’d be a useful means of investigating theories on how planets and planetoids form.
In addition, studying NEOs is also essential in creating safeguards against them striking Earth. The Russian meteorite explosion earlier this year put a new emphasis on the importance of tracking small asteroids, as the object that detonated in the skies above Chelyabinsk was too small to have been detected by other means. Much like many small asteroids, NEOs are too small to reflect visible light and must be tracked by infrared imaging.
Ultimately, bagging and dragging one of the smaller ones may be the only way to successfully study them and find ways to divert the larger ones. And a mission of this nature would stretch NASA’s unmanned capabilities for probes and satellites — a useful factor when discussing exploration of targets like Europa or Titan. It would also serve as a test of the Orion capsule and SLS, which are the intended means of getting astronauts to Mars by 2030.
NASA’s news release included a series of photos and a video animation of how the capture operation would take place, which included crew operations, the Orion spacecraft’s trip to and rendezvous with the relocated asteroid, as well as astronauts maneuvering through a spacewalk to collect samples from the asteroid.
NASA will also be hosting a technical workshop at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston from Sept. 20th to Oct. 2nd to discuss potential ideas, and is looking for public input. Virtual participation will also be available to the public, and details on how to participate will become available soon. Stay tuned for updates, or check in with Universe Today, who is following the story.