NASA On the Hunt For An Asteroid To Capture
By NASA.gov // June 22, 2014
ASTEROID REDIRECT MISSION
ABOVE VIDEO: Concept animation featuring notional crew operations during NASA’s Asteroid mission.
NASA is on the hunt for an asteroid to capture with a robotic spacecraft, redirect to a stable orbit around the moon, and send astronauts to study in the 2020s — all on the agency’s human Path to Mars.
Agency officials announced on Thursday recent progress to identify candidate asteroids for its Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), increase public participation in the search for asteroids, and advance the mission’s design.
NASA plans to launch the ARM robotic spacecraft in 2019 and will make a final choice of the asteroid for the mission about a year before the spacecraft launches.
NASA is working on two concepts for the mission: the first is to fully capture a very small asteroid in open space, and the second is to collect a boulder-sized sample off of a much larger asteroid.
Both concepts would require redirecting an asteroid less than 32 feet (10 meters) in size into the moon’s orbit. The agency will choose between these two concepts in late 2014 and further refine the mission’s design.
The agency will award a total of $4.9 million for concept studies addressing components of ARM.
Proposals for the concept studies were solicited through a Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) released in March, and selected in collaboration with NASA’s Space Technology and Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorates.
The studies will be completed over a six-month period beginning in July, during which time system concepts and key technologies needed for ARM will be refined and matured.
The studies also will include an assessment of the feasibility of potential commercial partners to support the robotic mission.
“With these system concept studies, we are taking the next steps to develop capabilities needed to send humans deeper into space than ever before, and ultimately to Mars, while testing new techniques to protect Earth from asteroids,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.
NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope made recent observations of an asteroid, designated 2011 MD, which bears the characteristics of a good candidate for the full capture concept.
While NASA will continue to look for other candidate asteroids during the next few years as the mission develops, astronomers are making progress to find suitable candidate asteroids for humanity’s next destination into the solar system.
“Observing these elusive remnants that may date from the formation of our solar system as they come close to Earth, is expanding our understanding of our world and the space it resides in,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.
“Closer study of these objects challenge our capabilities for future exploration and will help us test ways to protect our planet from impact. The Spitzer observatory is one of our tools to identify and characterize potential candidate targets for the asteroid mission.”
Analysis of Spitzer’s infrared data show 2011 MD is roughly 20 feet (6 meters) in size and has a remarkably low density — about the same as water, which supports the analysis of observations taken in 2011.
The asteroid appears to have a structure perhaps resembling a pile of rocks, or a “rubble pile.”
Since solid rock is about three times as dense as water, this suggests about two-thirds of the asteroid must be empty space.
The research team behind the observation says the asteroid could be a collection of small rocks, held loosely together by gravity, or it may be one solid rock with a surrounding halo of small particles.
In both cases, the asteroid mass could be captured by the ARM capture mechanism and redirected into lunar orbit.