NASA announces Asteroid Grand Challenge

Capturing an Asteroid
By leveraging capabilities across all of NASA, the agency 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. It raises the bar for human exploration and discovery while taking advantage of the diverse talents at NASA. This image represents a notional spacecraft with its asteroid capture mechanism deployed. Image Credit: NASA/Advanced Concepts Lab

NASA announced Tuesday a Grand Challenge focused on finding all asteroid threats to human populations and knowing what to do about them.

The challenge, which was announced at an asteroid initiative industry and partner day at NASA Headquarters in Washington, 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 NASA's recently announced 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 to help solve this global problem."

Grand Challenges are ambitious goals on a national or global scale that capture the imagination and demand advances in innovation and breakthroughs in science and technology. They are an important element of President Obama's Strategy for American Innovation.

"I applaud NASA for issuing this because finding asteroid threats, and having a plan for dealing with them, needs to be an all-hands-on-deck effort," said Tom Kalil, deputy director for technology and innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. "The efforts of private-sector partners and our will augment the work NASA already is doing to improve near-Earth object detection capabilities."

NASA also released a request for information (RFI) that invites 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 RFI is open for 30 days, and responses will be used to help develop public engagement opportunities and a September industry workshop.

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Jun 18, 2013
A large impact has never occurred in historical times, or at least was never reported. Therefore the likelihood of such an event to happen is fairly low. I mean, such an event never happened in two millennium, and an institution like NASA, that is not even one hundred years old, would like to do something against it? There's something wrong.

Jun 18, 2013
Therefore the likelihood of such an event to happen is fairly low.

I thing you're missing something fundamental here:

If the ramifications of an impact were less than catastrophic one could just say: we assess risk vs. cost and will bear the cost if necessary (playing with expected average values).

But if the ramifications mean extinction that sort of calculus doesn't work, because otherwise you could argue 'low probability' forever but at some point it would hit you.

(And if you may remember: Shoemaker-Levy 9 was barely 20 years ago. Any one its impacts would have spelled 'game over' for us)

We are, for the first time in history, able to look out and maybe even do something against killer asteroids - we should hop to it ASAP.

Jun 18, 2013
This is a big picture puzzle I think about a lot.

So far I don't have a solution within current technology. My intuition tells me something to do with bubble properties and water tension like when you view something like hail with a high speed camera falling into water it doesn't really break through the water surface but bounces on the top layer like a trampoline up to a point.

I'm not sure what to do with that yet but I probably sound like the cranks who post here a lot haha. Anyways, food for thought.

Jun 19, 2013
Of course Earth-killer sized asteroids are a statistical threat and we we have to think about ways of disarming such potentials - the solutions do not appear to be simple. What I do not fully comprehend is the necessity to "visit and capture" - I would think that the optical exploration of the orbital dynamics of asteroids would suffice. We know their composition pretty well from e.g. Type II carbonaceous chondrites and meteoritic remains - what is to be gained by capture and further examination?

Jun 19, 2013
what is to be gained by capture and further examination?

Since these asteroids are already on a collison course to Earth one could think about this scenario:

Say you kow it will hit Earth in 20 years. If you're able to detect it that early and could shift its path minutely so that it doesn't hit anymore you could set up a few mining bots to mine any ore (always under the assumption that asteroid mining is feasible/economically viable - which it isn't currently).
When the asteroid swings by Earth you dump the ore (into orbit, or in small enough packages into an ocean.)

Jun 20, 2013
what is to be gained by capture and further examination?

Many of the ways we might protect ourselves from a large asteroid on a collision course involve us having to actually travel to it and work on it. For example, attaching a propulsion system to it, or digging up part of it and throwing the pieces out like a digging dog, or attaching a solar sail/brake, etc. We need to develope the engineering solutions for that kind of work as well as practice how a robot or human might be able to work in that kind of low but not zero gravity, on a spinning object. Working around a big asteroid presents a bunch of problems we have never had to deal with before. Imagine trying to get close to an irregularly shaped spinning object, for example. We also need to know more about their internal structure. Are large cracks common, for example. This kind of information will influence which types of defense systems will work and which will not.

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