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NASA Space Science

NASA Funds Projects For Asteroid-Capture Plan 65

An anonymous reader writes: NASA has announced funding for 18 different projects aimed at developing an asteroid retrieval mission. "The agency is working on two concepts for the mission. The first concept would fully capture a very small asteroid in free space and the other would retrieve a boulder off of a much larger asteroid. Both concepts would redirect an asteroid mass less than 10 meters in size to orbit the moon. Astronauts aboard the Orion spacecraft launched on the Space Launch System (SLS) would rendezvous with the captured asteroid mass in lunar orbit and collect samples for return to Earth." Astronomers using the Spitzer Space Telescope have also identified and measured the size of a candidate near-earth asteroid. It measures roughly six meters in diameter, and seems to be held together lightly, possible as a "pile of rubble."
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NASA Funds Projects For Asteroid-Capture Plan

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  • One small step... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 20, 2014 @01:34PM (#47283121)

    All this fooling around with an asteroid could be done for a fraction of the cost with robotic probes.

    Yes... and no.

    A significant portion of the proposed project is technology development. This mission puts together and demonstrates a large, high power solar-electric propulsion system, which would be a valuable tool for many missions, including human missions to Mars, or to anywhere. Then it gives us a target for a short-duration human exploration mission, testing the spacecraft concepts that could be accomplished,with a much less complicated mission than a Mars mission, or even a Mars fly-by.

    In terms of step-by-step development and demonstration of technologies for exploration, the program makes a lot of sense.

    You may or may not be in favor of human exploration of Mars, but if this really is a long-term goal of the space program, it is greatly beneficial to have technologies developed and tested first on missions that are somewhat less ambitious than the human Mars mission.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 20, 2014 @02:08PM (#47283465)

    Remote control cars on Mars are boring. They do nothing to advance anything except some mild bickering over how common bacteria is in our solar system.
    Asteroid capture does not do much by itself, but would serve as a meaningful proof of concept for the feasibility of extraplanetary construction. Many issues would still be unresolved, but it would show the availability of resources and provide a workspace to start testing ideas of how to extract, process, and manufacture with metals in a negligible gravity non-atmospheric environment.

  • by Squidlips ( 1206004 ) on Friday June 20, 2014 @02:25PM (#47283641)
    The Gobi desert or the top of Mt. Everest or the Dry Valleys of Antarctica are, to paraphrase Sam Kinison, like Club Med compared to Mars. A human settlement on Mars would never be self-sustaining (no resources, limited energy, and no minerals) and could never flourish (the children would be weird stick figures that could never come back to Earth). On top of everything else would be the extremely unhealthy environment of dust, radiation, and low G.
  • by confused one ( 671304 ) on Friday June 20, 2014 @03:11PM (#47284043)

    While I don't have a high opinion of the SLS stack or of Congressional pork... One of the problems NASA is faced with is justifying their existence, which in the public eye (i.e. our representatives in Congress) has to include some form of manned spaceflight. This while not having the funding wherewithal (as provided by the same Congressional representatives) to complete a flagship manned planetary or lunar exploration program.

    You can't completely discount manned spaceflight as having absolutely no scientific value; because, there is scientific and technical value in performing a manned mission to an asteroid parked in orbit. There's a quote that goes something like: "A geologist with a rock hammer could learn more in an hour than the robotic probe learned in a year." It's a gross oversimplification but there's some validity to it. By putting people on the site, we can learn quite a bit about the makeup and structure of the sample asteroid that might not be possible with a single pre-designed robotic probe, regardless of how well designed. A human in-situ can make observations and connections based on experience that a robot might not be equipped to make. Said human could then make decisions based on that information, which might be different than decisions made by a remote operator.

    In addition, in the process of designing and flying the vehicle we gain valuable technical information necessary to support various human. We get improved engine designs for vehicles, human or robotic. We get better life-support designs which can be applicable to terrestrial applications as well as space. We get better harsh environment suits. We test the ability of our systems to support "long-endurance" human spaceflight outside the cozy protected orbit ISS resides in.

    Now, if your argument is simply that we shouldn't be putting humans into space at all, as it's too dangerous and/or expensive... I don't know that I have a counter argument that you'll find acceptable. Sure, we can do some things more cheaply using robots and automation. That's true with many human endeavors. McDonalds is working on automating food production in their restaurants, for example. Agriculture can be largely automated. Manufacturing can be automated. Art can be automated. We use human labor because humans are cheap(-er) than using machines or humans introduce artistic / cultural variation, or humans can make observations and connections based on experience that machines cannot (yet) make, or we just have a surplus of humans looking for something to do...

    Sending people to space is expensive because of the energy cost (boost out of the gravity well) and life-support cost. There's no getting around the energy required to boost out of the gravity well; but, we can improve the vehicle and drive costs down. Life support costs we can reduce through infrastructure improvements. If we're ever to have any kind of presence in space, we have to start somewhere; and, that's going to require putting humans into space to obtain experience that cannot be obtained remotely via robotic telepresence. If we're going to reduce the cost, we have to build infrastructure, which is largely going to require some human supervision. We're going to go there eventually; the root technology is available now.

"I'm not afraid of dying, I just don't want to be there when it happens." -- Woody Allen