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NASA Considers Putting an Asteroid Into Orbit Around the Moon 171

Posted by Soulskill
from the keep-bruce-willis-on-hand-just-in-case dept.
Zothecula writes "To paraphrase an old saying, if the astronaut can't go to the asteroid, then the asteroid must come to the astronaut. In a study released by the Keck Institute for Space Studies, researchers outlined a mission (PDF) to tow an asteroid into lunar orbit by 2025 using ion propulsion and a really big bag. The idea is to bring an asteroid close to Earth for easy study and visits by astronauts without the hazards and expense of a deep space mission. Now, Keck researchers say NASA officials are evaluating the plan to see whether it's something they want to do. The total cost is estimated to be roughly $2.6 billion."
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NASA Considers Putting an Asteroid Into Orbit Around the Moon

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  • Deja Vu (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 04, 2013 @06:48PM (#42481691)

    I feel like I have read this article before. NASA Plans To "Lasso" Asteroid and Turn It Into Space Station [slashdot.org]

  • by DustinB (220805) on Friday January 04, 2013 @06:50PM (#42481721) Homepage

    It would be spectacular if movies were made based upon potential Nasa missions and the awesome adventures that would entail. Perhaps that would get through to the masses. Unfortunately these thins are so mind-boggling to our uneducated masses that they don't see the amazing technical feat and engineering this requires, nor the art and wonder of it all. It's beyond their culture of lulz, shopping, and life stress. We love our movies though and they can still help us remember how to dream. I'd love to see a resurgence of sci-fi with an aim at inspiring us to push forward.

  • by Mister Liberty (769145) on Friday January 04, 2013 @07:16PM (#42482129)

    Earth–Moon L1 I mean.

  • Bargin (Score:5, Interesting)

    by DarthBling (1733038) on Friday January 04, 2013 @07:47PM (#42482571)
    For only $2.6 billion, sounds like a bargain to me. For some perspective, here's what else $2.6 billion can buy or is equivalent to:

    - F22 Raptor
    - About one day of War on Terror
    - 60% of the money spent during the 2013 Presidential campaign.
    - The Mars Science Laboratory
    - Total worldwide box office revenue for Avatar
  • by icebike (68054) on Friday January 04, 2013 @08:25PM (#42483159)

    The question is perfectly reasonable for anyone on earth to ask. This idea that you can't ask rocket scientists to justify anything is pretty elitist [cnn.com] if you ask me.

    How precisely can the place it in orbit. You've got something on the order of 417 metric tons of material (if measured on earth) assuming its a loosely packed ball of rock, which many asteroids of that size are. That could do a lot of damage if it became uncontrolled.

    Can you bag that without it changing shape?
    Can the bag and tethers withstand the amount of strain necessary to decelerate it from its current orbit to earth orbit, then to the moon's orbit?
    Can the engine last that long?
    What happens when (not if) the engine fails?
    Would it burn up on entry into earth's atmosphere if the engine failed, or a tether broke?
    If you lose control of the package for any reason, where does it end up? In 5 years, in 25 years?

    If you, and they are so certain of their calculations and abilities, why not put it in earth orbit as others have suggested?

  • by Cito (1725214) on Friday January 04, 2013 @10:58PM (#42484533) Homepage

    But wait the moron scientist will calculate it as 7 miles diameter instead of 7 meters and we'll all die to some math screwup...

    Precedent

    "The Mars Climate Orbiter, which cost $Aus 136 million, disappeared because a Lockheed Martin engineering team used Imperial measurements while the JPL (Jet Propulsion Lab) team used the more conventional metric system. The wrong navigation information was sent to the Mars Climate Orbiter. It most likely burnt up in the atmosphere."

    hehe

  • by wisebabo (638845) on Saturday January 05, 2013 @07:55AM (#42486697) Journal

    Ok, so once the asteroid collector has delivered the asteroid to high lunar orbit, what does the spacecraft do then?

    Well, if its got even a tiny fraction of its propellant left over (remember it just towed something maybe 100x its size clear across the solar system) , it slowly spirals down to low earth orbit and... REFUELS.

    Now here's where things get interesting. Once it's refueled (remember its main consumable is up to 12,000 lbs. of Xenon, it gets its energy from solar power), it can do any number of things. Of course it could be sent out again to get another asteroid (including, as I mentioned in a previous post, one with precious WATER) but that might be boring. How about having it PAY FOR ITSELF by moving satellites from LEO to geosynchronous orbit. (This is very expensive as it typically requires an additional booster, I think the cost per pound is at least double that to low orbit). I think this market is on the order of $5B per year.

    The reason why this would work is because the asteroid tug would clearly be capable of moving very(!) large payloads. It wouldn't even have to be very slow, if it can accelerate a 500 ton asteroid at 1/10,000th of a g, it could accelerate a 5 ton satellite at say 1/200th of a gee (taking into account the tug's own weight). So it could deliver the satellites in weeks if not days. Of course there would need to be a few minor design modifications to the tug. The collapsible "bag" would have to be removable and some sort of industry standard docking ports added. There would need to be some provision for refueling ports and critical components (gyroscopes, reaction wheels, electronics) would need to be replaceable/upgradeable like the Hubble space telescope. Of course servicing this "space tug" in this way is probably beyond the near term capabilities of robotics. Rather than this being a problem, it could be an opportunity -

    - for the International Space Station to actually be USEFUL. Here it could serve as a fuel depot, servicing "garage" and interchange point for these "space tugs". The kind of problem that robotics can't handle yet are ideally suited for an astronaut with a wrench (and maybe some elbow grease). The fact that the main propellant for these tugs is Xenon, an inert noble element, makes handling the fuel much less problematic (no problems with corrosion or toxicity) and safer (no fear of explosive combustion). Even the fact that these tugs use ion thrusters would be an advantage meaning that everything would be happening very slowly, if one went out of control they could probably move the entire station out of the way (like they do when avoiding space junk). The station could also keep spare, interchangeable parts for these tugs such as additional "bags" or robot arms or other modules. In short, the ISS would have a PURPOSE.

    With even a little thought, these space tugs have lots of additional uses. The same high power ion engines that can move a 500 ton asteroid could also send 500 tons of cargo cheaply (if slowly) to Mars. The same collapsible bag that can capture a tumbling asteroid can easily capture a much lighter piece of space junk. All it takes is for a government with foresight to make the initial investment that may (as I've suggested) quickly repay itself perhaps many times over. And isn't that the purpose of government (if not NASA)?

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