2013-11-20 / Top News

This era’s moonshot: Catching an asteroid

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Astronauts Rick Linnehan and Mike Foreman work with simulation instructor Juan Garriga (center) to prepare for their first ascent simulation inside a mockup of NASA’s new Orion spacecraft at Johnson Space Center. 
NASA / COURTESY PHOTO Astronauts Rick Linnehan and Mike Foreman work with simulation instructor Juan Garriga (center) to prepare for their first ascent simulation inside a mockup of NASA’s new Orion spacecraft at Johnson Space Center. NASA / COURTESY PHOTO NASA is developing a first-ever mission to identify, rendezvous with, capture and redirect a small asteroid into a stable orbit in the lunar vicinity, and then send humans to visit it using the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft. This mission represents an unprecedented technological feat and allows NASA to affordably pursue the Administration’s goal of visiting an asteroid by 2025.

The asteroid initiative will incorporate advanced solar electric propulsion technology as a power source for spacecraft, offering greater flexibility to the spacecraft and mission planners. The mission also leverages the agency’s progress on the Space Launch System rocket, Orion spacecraft and other cutting-edge technology developments.


This image shows what capturing an asteroid could look like. A spacecraft would catch a small asteroid in a bag, reposition it into orbit around the moon where astronauts in the Orion spacecraft could then make contact with the space rock. 
NASA / COURTESY IMAGE This image shows what capturing an asteroid could look like. A spacecraft would catch a small asteroid in a bag, reposition it into orbit around the moon where astronauts in the Orion spacecraft could then make contact with the space rock. NASA / COURTESY IMAGE NASA astronauts recently experienced what it will be like to launch into space aboard the new Orion spacecraft during the first ascent simulations since the space shuttles and their simulators were retired.

Ascent simulations are precise rehearsals of the steps a spacecraft’s crew will be responsible for — including things that could go wrong — during their climb into space.

It will take about eight minutes for Orion to get from the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center to the altitude where the rocket’s main engines will cut off, the milestone that marks the spacecraft’s arrival in space. In that time, if everything goes as planned, the commander and pilot will have few actions to perform; if anything goes wrong, that quickly changes, and the crew must be able to quickly access all the relevant procedures and displays they need.


Astronauts Rick Linnehan and Mike Foreman try out a prototype display and control system inside an Orion spacecraft mockup at Johnson Space Center. Astronauts Rick Linnehan and Mike Foreman try out a prototype display and control system inside an Orion spacecraft mockup at Johnson Space Center. The Orion team has been working to develop ideas on how to make that possible, and has developed a working prototype that’s been installed in a lifesized Orion mockup at Johnson Space Center.

Earlier this year, NASA announced a Grand Challenge focused on finding all asteroid threats to human populations and knowing what to do about them. The challenge is a large-scale effort that will use multi-disciplinary collaborations and a variety of partnerships with other government agencies, international partners, industry, academia, and citizen scientists. It complements the mission to redirect an asteroid and send humans to study it.

“NASA already is working to find asteroids that might be a threat to our planet, and while we have found 95 percent of the large asteroids near the Earth’s orbit, we need to find all those that might be a threat to Earth,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver. “This Grand Challenge is focused on detecting and characterizing asteroids and learning how to deal with potential threats. We will also harness public engagement, open innovation and citizen science to help solve this global problem.”

NASA also invited industry and potential partners to offer ideas on accomplishing NASA’s goal to locate, redirect, and explore an asteroid, as well as find and plan for asteroid threats. The responses will be discussed during a public workshop taking place this week in Houston.

Topics include how best to identify, capture and relocate a near-Earth asteroid for closer study, how to respond to asteroid threats, as well as partnership, crowdsourcing and citizen science ideas. Workshop results will be considered for future planning as NASA refines the details of its mission. ¦

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