News From Space: Asteroids in the Bag!

asteroid_earthFor 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).

orion_asteroidOnce 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.

orion_captureIn 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.

asteroid_neo_studyNASA’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.

And be sure to check out NASA’s video on what the NEO capture would look like. And check out more of pictures at NASA’s Asteroid Initiative website.


Sources:
extremetech.com
, universetoday.com, nasa.gov

NASA’s Next Mission to the Moon

moonThe buzz about NASA is that the human race is once again going to the moon, and planning to stay there! According to space policy expert John Logsdon, there are plans to establish a manned base on the dark side of the moon under the Obama administration. He further indicated that with the election pending, this news has been kept under wraps. But with Obama now secure in a second term, it is expected that there will be an announcement soon.

“NASA has been evolving its thinking, and its latest charts have inserted a new element of cislunar/lunar gateway/Earth-moon L2 sort of stuff into the plan,” said Logsdon in a recent interview with SPACE.com. “They’ve been holding off announcing that until after the election, noting that NASA’s mission, direction, and budget could have been revised under a Romney administration.”

For those who have been following the Obama administration’s plans for space, this should not come as a surprise. In 2010, the president signed the NASA 2010 Authorization Act into law, a bill which freed up $60 billion for NASA through 2013. This move was intended to reignite space exploration at a time when the US found itself lagging behind Russia, China, the European Union and India in terms of bold new space projects.

These project include a planned asteroid visit by 2025 and a manned mission to Mars in 2030. A manned outpost at the Earth-moon L2 “gateway” (shown in the diagram below) could serve as an important stepping stone to the outer solar system. But right now, NASA’s eyes are firmly fixed on Mars itself, since a manned mission is the next logical step in their research of the Red Planet.

NASA_moon“There are many options – and many routes – being discussed on our way to the Red Planet. In addition to the moon and an asteroid, other options may be considered as we look for ways to buy down risk – and make it easier – to get to Mars.” At a conference held this past September, NASA deputy chief Lori Garver went even further to outline NASA’s goals for the coming years:

“We just recently delivered a comprehensive report to Congress outlining our destinations which makes clear that SLS  – NASA’s new heavy-lift “Space Launch System” – will go way beyond low-Earth orbit to explore the expansive space around the Earth-moon system, near-Earth asteroids, the moon, and ultimately, Mars. Let me say that again, we’re going back to the moon, attempting a first-ever mission to send humans to an asteroid and actively developing a plan to take Americans to Mars.”

Suffice it to say, NASA is happy the election turned out the way it did. With their budget secure, the course of future space exploration has been set and remains in effect. Who’s to say where it will take us beyond Mars? To the Jovian satellites of Europa, Ganymede and Io? The Saturnalian moons of Titan, Rhea, Dione and Enceladus? I call Gliese 581 after that. I want to know for sure if the fourth planet (the setting of our story Yuva) is inhabitable or not already!

These are exciting times we live in, aren’t they?

Source: IO9, Space.com