Officially, it’s called the Asteroid Initiative.
The plan was incented by President Barack Obama's call for NASA to send a manned mission to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025, and then aim for flight to Mars in the 2030s.
NASA's initiative offered a number of advantages. It was new and novel; no human had visited an asteroid before. And with very little gravity, the project didn’t require expensive landers and ascent vehicles.
It sounded like an ideal plan, but it turned out there were some problems.
After searching for several years (President Obama announced the plan in 2010), scientists haven’t found a suitable asteroid close enough to Earth to reach in a reasonable amount of time. In addition, NASA’s new heavy launch vehicle, Orion, can only support a crew for a few weeks in space.
So NASA shifted gears. Rather than send astronauts to an asteroid, the agency proposed an asteroid retrieval mission. The mission aimed to send a robotic spacecraft out to a near-Earth asteroid and somehow capture it; snare it with a “space lasso,” drape a “space net” around it, drive a hook into the surface and tow it back to a parking orbit near the Moon where it could be explored by astronauts. What’s more, a return to the Moon could be combined with the asteroid exploration.
So far, NASA has received more than 400 proposals from private companies and non-profit groups in response to their call for novel ideas on how to tackle its retrieval mission.
Still, funding for the mission is uncertain and the technical issues continue to mount.
Mars is still the ultimate goal, but as costs for the mission continue to mount, the Asteroid Initiative could remain just that; an initiative.
— Frank Graff
Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on North Carolina Science Now, a weekly science series that airs Wednesdays, beginning in August 2013, as part of North Carolina Now on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!