Saturday, July 12, 2014

An ambitious asteroid program

April 20. 2013 11:44PM
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The famous Perry Como song with its memorable chorus, “Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket / Never let it fade away,” may have to be rewritten when NASA finally gets its hands on an asteroid.

Sometime in the early 2020s, NASA will launch into space a robot probe that looks like an oversized Dixie Cup to retrieve a 20-to-30-foot-wide asteroid. The probe will utilize yet-to-be-developed solar-electric propulsion technology and tow the asteroid back to high Earth orbit where it can be safely studied.

Future astronauts will also use the captured asteroid as a staging ground for manned takeoffs and landings, despite the fact that it is relatively small compared to other asteroids that populate the Earth’s neighborhood. This is part of an ambitious program by NASA to deal with concerns that asteroids with the potential to harm the planet are being detected relatively late in the game.

An international consensus is forming about the proactive wisdom of developing methods and technology to divert asteroids from a collision course with Earth, instead of waiting to come up with a solution when a threat is on the horizon. What NASA learns from studying the asteroid it plans to put in Earth’s orbit will help scientists deal with the threat of far bigger rocks that may come this way.

The Obama administration has proposed $17.7 billion for NASA’s fiscal 2014 budget with $105 million earmarked for preliminary work and research on the asteroid retrieval mission. The total cost for identifying, capturing and hauling a 1.1 million-pound asteroid back to Earth’s orbit by 2025 is estimated at $2.65 billion.

Much of the technology needed must still be devised, but it could galvanize the aerospace industry in a way similar to the race to the moon. As a return on initial investment, it can’t be beat — especially if it spares mankind an apocalyptic encounter with an asteroid. Perry Como would approve.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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