NASA details plans to pluck rock off asteroid, explore it (Update)

March 25, 2015 bySeth Borenstein
This Monday, Sept. 12, 2005 photo provided by Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency shows an asteroid named Itokawa photographed by the Hayabusa probe. On Wednesday, March 25, 2015, NASA announced it is aiming to launch a rocket to an asteroid in five years and grab a boulder off of it - a stepping stone and training mission for an eventual trip sending humans to Mars. Itokawa, 2008 EV5 and Bennu are the candidates for the mission. (AP Photo/Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency)

NASA is aiming to launch a rocket to an asteroid in five years and grab a boulder off of it—a stepping stone and training mission for an eventual trip sending humans to Mars.

The space agency Wednesday unveiled details of the $1.25 billion plan to launch a solar-powered unmanned spaceship to an asteroid in December 2020. The ship would spend about a year circling the large space rock and pluck a 13-foot (4 meter) boulder off its surface using robotic arms. It would have three to five opportunities to grab the rock, said Robert Lightfoot, NASA's associate administrator.

The smaller rock would be hauled near the moon and parked in orbit around the moon. Using a giant rocket ship and the Orion crew capsule that are still being developed, two astronauts would fly to the smaller rock in 2025 and start exploring. Astronauts aboard Orion would dock with the robotic ship, make spacewalks, climbing around the mini-asteroid to inspect and document, and even grab a piece to return to Earth.

The smaller rock might not even be big enough for the two astronauts to stand on; it would have fit in the cargo bay of the now-retired space shuttles.

The mission will "demonstrate the capabilities we're going to need for further future human missions beyond low Earth orbit and then ultimately to Mars," Lightfoot said.

Lightfoot also identified the leading target. It's a 1,300-foot wide space rock discovered in 2008 called 2008 EV5, making it somewhat larger than most of the asteroids that circle the sun near Earth. Two other space rocks are being considered, called Itokawa and Bennu.

NASA managers chose this option over another plan that would lasso or use a giant bag to grab an entire asteroid and haul it near the moon. The selected plan is about $100 million more expense but it was picked by managers in a meeting Tuesday because it would test technologies and techniques "we're going to need when we go to another planetary body," Lightfoot said during a telephone press conference. Those include "soft landing" and grabbing technologies, he said.

A few years ago, the administration proposed sending astronauts to an asteroid and landing on it, but later changed that to bringing the asteroid closer to Earth.

The $1.25 billion price does not include the larger costs of the rockets launching the spaceships to the asteroid and the smaller boulder.

The entire project called ARM for Asteroid Redirect Mission would also test new spacesuits for deep space, as opposed to Earth orbit, and may even help companies look at the idea of mining asteroids for precious metals, said NASA spokesman David Steitz.

Steitz said by getting closer to the large asteroid, the mission will help with "planetary defense" techniques, learning how to nudge a threatening space rock out of harm's way.

Scott Pace, space policy director at George Washington University and a NASA associate administrator in the George W. Bush administration, said the concept in some ways makes sense in terms of training, engineering and cost, but "it still leaves the larger questions: What this leads to and why?"

Explore further: Rock that whizzed by Earth may be grabbed by NASA

More information: NASA's asteroid initiative: … iative/#.VRMcf_nF-So

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2.6 / 5 (8) Mar 25, 2015
What a waste of time and money. At this rate the only reason for NASA to go to mars will be to pick up some authentic Chinese food and drop off laundry.
1 / 5 (1) Mar 26, 2015
I agree, seems like a massive waste, either spend a little more and retrieve a full asteroid or just send a robotic mission to do a sample return, what's the point of sending astronauts to "explore" a 13 foot boulder??
1 / 5 (1) Mar 26, 2015
Thats like sending a rookie geologist to collect a boulder from Arizona, taking it in his car to a neighbouring state and have two senior geologists drive out and study it rather then sending them on a camping trip to where the boulder came from
Mark Thomas
2.5 / 5 (2) Mar 26, 2015
This mission is going to be useful and exciting. The mission requires a serious manned test of the SLS and Orion, docking and EVA in lunar orbit, and use of a solar-electric propulsion unit whose technology will be used for taking equipment and supplies to Mars ahead of the first manned mission in 2033. Sure I'd love to see the astronauts riding their brand new nuclear rocket and setting velocity records as they race out to a distant asteroid, but 2020 is too soon for that. In the long term, visiting asteroids is going to be extremely important to space exploration, so don't discount that piece either. I for one will be moved when we FINALLY get people beyond LEO again after nearly a half century of waiting. I can't wait to see them examining that boulder with the moon and Earth over their shoulders. For us long-suffering fans of space exploration, I wouldn't be surprised to find a wet eye or two. We're tired of waiting, let's get back out there! Go boldly.
5 / 5 (1) Mar 26, 2015
Simply going back to the moon would be a much better choice. It is difficult to understand NASA's agenda. NASA has not taken the right path on their manned missions since the Apollo program. NASA has become so unreliable that the University of Arizona has built their own mission control center to run many of the robotic missions to the planets. I know that NASA employs actual scientists, but it seems like they do not have any say in the decisions that get made. NASA has largely become a political PR movement who's relevance is becoming more questionable with time. Every great achievement in space since the Apollo program has NASA providing a launchpad for an experiment that was built and run by someone else. I could fill a page with all of the benefits of establishing a base on the moon, but going to an asteroid is questionable at best. In these days of shrinking budgets, this is the best we can do?
2.5 / 5 (2) Mar 26, 2015
This is the less inspiring mission I have heard. Rather than going to a difficult place, they are going to put something in an easy place so they can go somewhere. To me it sounds like when they made the ISS, which was mainly designed just to have a place to go with the Shuttle. The most intrepid exploration agency has become an space bureaucrats agency. Is this all what they are going to do 56 years after a moon landing mission? Ridiculous.

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