NASA plans to snag asteroid, tow it near moon for inspection
PASADENA, Calif. — Surrounded by engineers, NASA chief Charles Bolden on Thursday inspected a prototype spacecraft engine that could power an audacious mission to lasso an asteroid and tow it closer to Earth for astronauts to explore.
A month ago, the Obama administration's 2014 budget proposed $105 million to begin the mission, which could cost more than $2.6 billion.
Engineers in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California and Glenn Research Center in Ohio are developing a thruster that relies on ion propulsion instead of conventional chemical fuel.
Once relegated to science fiction, ion propulsion — which fires beams of electrically charged atoms to propel a spacecraft — is preferred for deep space cruising because it's more fuel-efficient. Engine testing is expected to ramp up next year.
During his visit to JPL campus, northeast of Los Angeles, Bolden viewed an engineering model of the engine and peered through a porthole of a vacuum chamber housing the prototype.
NASA is under White House orders to fly humans to an asteroid as a stepping stone to Mars. Instead of sending astronauts to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, as originally planned, the space agency came up with a quicker, cheaper idea: Haul the asteroid close to the moon and visit it there.
Bolden said the original concept was impractical given the flat budget and praised the alternative as “ingenious.”
“If you can't get to the asteroid, bring the asteroid to you,” Bolden said. The space agency would launch an ion-powered unmanned spacecraft to snare a yet-to-be-selected small asteroid in 2019 and park it in the moon's neighborhood. Then a spacewalking team would hop on an Orion space capsule that's under development and explore the rock in 2021.
In addition to preparing astronauts for an eventual trip to Mars, NASA said the asteroid-capture mission is designed to test technologies to deflect threatening space boulders on a collision course with Earth.
“Anytime that you can get up close to an asteroid and understand its composition and its characteristics ... that's getting to know the enemy,” said Don Yeomans, who heads NASA's Near Earth Object Program at JPL.
Scientists have a dozen potential small asteroids in mind for the mission, but Yeomans said more observations are needed before settling on a target. Whatever asteroid NASA chooses to redirect, it won't pose a threat to Earth because it would burn up if it inadvertently plunged through the atmosphere, scientists said.
Bolden's JPL stop is part of his annual spring tour of NASA centers around the country. His California journey began Wednesday at the Dryden Flight Research Center in the Mojave Desert where Sierra Nevada Corp. is preparing its Dream Chaser spaceship for test flights later this year before it can make supply runs to the International Space Station. On Friday, Bolden was set to visit the Ames Research Center in the Silicon Valley where engineers are working on various space technologies.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Utah’s Chaffetz in race for House speaker
- Hot issues put Supreme Court at helm of 2016 race
- Faith a comfort in aftermath of Oregon shooting
- Deal close on Pacific free trade pact
- Oregon college gunman’s victims walked varied paths
- 2 men arrested in 1984 rape, killing of girl, 14
- Ohio’s interpretation of Common Core test results threatens national comparison goals
- Apartment blast kills 1 in Brooklyn
- California vineyards skip irrigation amid drought
- Another round of divisive cases awaits Supreme Court
- Football game in St. Louis halted by gunshots