NASA has committed to an operation in which they will grab an asteroid and put it into lunar orbit in the 2020s, using a robotic system to throw a 12-metre-wide rock into a space shopping bag, and then tow it to the Moon. This seemingly useless mission is actually crucial to the survival of humankind.
The space agency calls it the Asteroid Redirect Mission. The image above shows how NASA envisions one of the missions after capture: it will send astronauts to the asteroid in an Orion spacecraft to take samples and return them to Earth. The rings on the bag are hooks for the astronauts to move safely across the asteroid's surface.
NASA has two ideas in mind to capture the asteroid. The first is to "retrieve a large, boulder-like mass from a larger asteroid and return it" to lunar orbit. Imagine it: sending a robotic ship to rendezvous with an asteroid, have it remove a chunk that is about 12 metres in diameter, put it inside a bag, and tow it to the Moon. It seems awfully difficult and dangerous.
The easier alternative is to "capture and redirect an entire very small asteroid." There's only one problem with this, according to Paul Chodas, a senior scientist at JPL's Near-Earth Object Program Office:
There are hundreds of millions of objects out there in this size range, but they are small and don't reflect a lot of sunlight, so they can be hard to spot. The best time to discover them is when they are brightest, when they are close to Earth.
NASA is already working to identify targets for ARM. The international community has teams of astronomers dedicated to spot these small objects in the sky using optical telescopes. They send their findings to a computer at the Near-Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
This computer calculates their orbit and size, adding them to a database. Another automated system constantly scans this database for potential candidates, sending an email with the subject line "New ARM Candidate" every time it finds one. According to Chodas this "has happened several dozen times since we implemented the system in March of 2013."
With that data in hand, Chodas contacts NASA's Deep Space Network station at Goldstone, California, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, and the Infrared Telescope Facility in Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Combining these stations, scientists can obtain precise "size and rotation information, and at times, even generating detailed images of an asteroid's surface" as well as "wealth of detailed data on spectral type, reflectivity and expected composition." This is when the scientists made their final assessment and put the asteroid in the target list.
The list is way too short so far. With the current budget, NASA can only get about two ARM targets per year.
According to NASA, the agency has a tiny "$20 million per year in the search for potentially hazardous asteroids through the Near Earth Object Observation Program." They added $105 million to ARM in 2014 and it is actively working with other companies and organisations to accelerate the programme as much as possible.
It's a pathetic budget, giving how important this is to the long term survival of humankind. It may sound dramatic, but the NEO and ARM programs are working both to protect us and to provide a path of expansion out of our resource-limited planet. The only path available, in fact.
So far, astronomers around the world have identified 10,713 known near-Earth objects. Obviously, the Near-Earth Object Program Office is not only identifying potential prey for the ARM hunters; it's the main part of NASA's planetary defence work. Whatever route it chooses for ARM, NASA says that it will send "astronauts aboard an Orion spacecraft [to] study the redirected asteroid mass in the vicinity of the moon and bring back samples."
It will give us information about the composition and structure of these space bodies, which is crucial to understand the origin of the solar system, the role of asteroids in the formation of life, and, potentially, provide us with important information about how to deflect potential threats like the meteor that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia.
Another important benefit of this mission is the future of space exploration. The experience and knowledge we gather from the capturing and towing will serve us to capture bigger asteroids for mining. Mining asteroids will be important to obtain resources for use on both Earth and in space.
Many asteroids are rich in elements that are hard to find on Earth--materials that are essential for the development of Earth and space-based industries. From fuel for interplanetary spaceships and fusion reactors to the construction of spacecraft and stations in space, the Moon, Mars, and beyond--asteroids can be mined more effectively in space, with no ecological risks. They can provide us with the unlimited resources that our old Earth will not be able to offer.
Eventually, as our understanding of asteroids grows, we will be able to harness them entirely. The idea of hollowing a large asteroid to turn it into a spacecraft is not a crazy one, but one that future generations will most probably see.
Perhaps I'm thinking too big here or too far ahead. Maybe spending more than a stupidly low $125 million in a programme that is fundamental to understand where we come from, protect our world, and give humankind the only possible path to expand and survive, is crazy.
Something tells me that's not the case. I'm sure that, in a hundred years, someone will look back at these days and will be embarrassed by our myopic priorities. Those people will recognise NASA's ARM programme as the first step in the future of space exploration and humanity expansion to the stars.