US space chief updates on asteroid lasso mission (Update)

May 23, 2013 by Alicia Chang
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, left to right, Firouz Naderi, Director for the Solar System Exploration, and John Brophy, Electric Propulsion Engineer, are shown during Bolden's visit to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., on Thursday, May 23, 2013. NASA engineers are developing an ion engine for an asteroid capture mission later this decade. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

Surrounded by engineers, NASA chief Charles Bolden 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.

Bolden checked on the progress Thursday a month after the Obama administration unveiled its 2014 budget that proposes $105 million to jumpstart the mission, which may eventually cost more than $2.6 billion.

Engineers at 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.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden visits to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., on Thursday, May 23, 2013. Bolden 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. Bolden's visit comes a month after the Obama administration unveiled its 2014 budget that proposes $105 million to jumpstart the mission, which may eventually cost more than $2.6 billion. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

During Thursday's visit to the JPL campus, nestled in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains 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 all the way to an asteroid, as originally planned, the space agency came up with a quicker, cheaper idea: Haul the asteroid close to the moon and visit it there.

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 currently under development and explore the rock in 2021.

Besides 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.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, right, talks with electric propulsion engineer John Brophy during a visit to Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., Thursday, May 23, 2013. They are standing next to an ion engine, which NASA engineers plan to use for an asteroid capture mission later this decade. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

Scientists have said the redirected asteroid would pose no threat to Earth. If it inadvertently plunged through the atmosphere, it would burn up, they 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.

Explore further: Giant crater in Russia's far north sparks mystery

5 /5 (3 votes)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

NASA's asteroid initiative benefits from rich history

Apr 12, 2013

NASA's FY2014 budget proposal includes a plan to robotically capture a small near-Earth asteroid and redirect it safely to a stable orbit in the Earth-moon system where astronauts can visit and explore it. ...

Scientists seek to corral asteroid for study

May 13, 2013

Scheming to rearrange the heavens, scientists are busy planning how to pluck, push and park a spinning asteroid between here and the moon. While most of us hope to dodge space rocks, NASA has unveiled an ambitious, $105 million ...

Recommended for you

Giant crater in Russia's far north sparks mystery

6 hours ago

A vast crater discovered in a remote region of Siberia known to locals as "the end of the world" is causing a sensation in Russia, with a group of scientists being sent to investigate.

NASA Mars spacecraft prepare for close comet flyby

6 hours ago

NASA is taking steps to protect its Mars orbiters, while preserving opportunities to gather valuable scientific data, as Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring heads toward a close flyby of Mars on Oct. 19.

Bacteria manipulate salt to build shelters to hibernate

23 hours ago

For the first time, Spanish researchers have detected an unknown interaction between microorganisms and salt. When Escherichia coli cells are introduced into a droplet of salt water and is left to dry, b ...

How do we terraform Venus?

23 hours ago

It might be possible to terraform Venus some day, when our technology gets good enough. The challenges for Venus are totally different than for Mars. How will we need to fix Venus?

Biomarkers of the deep

Jul 25, 2014

Tucked away in the southwest corner of Spain is a unique geological site that has fascinated astrobiologists for decades. The Iberian Pyrite Belt (IPB) in Spain's Río Tinto area is the largest known deposit ...

User comments : 0