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NASA narrowing choice of targets for asteroid capture mission

Capturing an asteroid.
Capturing an asteroid.

NASA is rapidly narrowing a field of potential targets for the agency's ambitious asteroid capture mission. The general plan: launch a satellite into space and use it to capture an asteroid, which then could be towed back toward Earth and placed into lunar orbit in order for up-close study and exploration training purposes.

At a press conference, Lindley Johnson, program executive for NASA's Near-Earth Object (NEO) Observations Program, said that "for either concept that's being looked at right now — either the capture of a small asteroid less than 10 meters in size, or going after a boulder, large boulder, on a larger asteroid — we have a list of about six or so candidates each." Johnson later added that NASA was keeping its options open and will examine new potential targets for the next two to three years should one look promising.

So, what of the plan?

First introduced by Florida senator Bill Nelson, few ever thought that the federal government would ever give any consideration to such a wild, seemingly impossible idea that would involve NASA launching a craft into space, capturing a small near-Earth asteroid, and then towing it back toward Earth in order to settle it into a stable lunar orbit. At less than a quarter million miles away, the asteroid will then serve as the perfect proving ground for new research, testing for the Orion space capsule and Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, and ultimately sending humans to Mars.

Well, NASA got money, to the tune of over $200 million, in the last two budget years. Needless to say, NASA is taking this idea very seriously, but there's a problem: how does one capture an asteroid, anyway?

The problem with this mission is that no one has ever been crazy enough to try something like this before. The biggest thing ever captured by a spacecraft is a satellite, all of which are small enough to be grappled by a robotic arm. An asteroid? Even a small one is far, far too big and heavy to capture in such a simple manner, hence why NASA began soliciting outside ideas.

Last week, NASA put out a call to research organizations that it is seeking ideas on how to make an asteroid capture mission a reality. The objectives: bring the asteroid to Earth at as low of a cost as possible. Speaking on this call for ideas, Greg Williams, deputy associate administrator for policy and plans in NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, said that "we're in this sort of pre-formulation phase, studying and gathering input, leading to a mission concept review that we'll have in early 2015, where we'll try and focus down to a specific concept, and then go develop and implement.”

As for input, NASA is seeking ideas in five separate areas: asteroid capture systems; rendezvous sensor systems; secondary payloads; adapting commercial spacecraft buses; and international and commercial partnership opportunities. Proposals are due May 5 (that's not a lot of time), and winners are expected to be announced on July 1. NASA will select a maximum of 25 submissions and hand out as much as $6 million to further these efforts.

In the end, though, only time will tell what happens. For the record, NASA wants astronauts on the redirected asteroid by 2025.

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