To SNATCH an asteroid


NASA released details on how it might grab an asteroid and bring it in orbit about the moon for more leisurely inspection. Here’s the scenario as it stands:

The Register — The space agency is planning a two-vehicle mission. The first launch will be an unmanned asteroid catcher, which will nuzzle up to a small asteroid and encase it in a “capture bag.” Two solar-powered ion thrusters using xenon fuel will then maneuver the asteroid into a parking orbit around the Moon.

In the second stage of the mission, two astronauts in an Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle will be launched on the as-yet unbuilt Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket to rendezvous with the space rock. The astronauts will head in towards the Moon and get a gravity assist from the planetoid, enabling them to reach the captured asteroid within nine days.

A couple of years ago when I wrote that the SLS is mostly just a government funded jobs program for mostly red districts represented by lawmakers who’s teaparty constituents become enraged at the mere mention of government money, I got a nice haul of email. Which included mail from NASA personnel past and present congratulating me for ‘cracking the code’ and getting it right. The agency is still great, arguably the largest concentration of brilliant innovative scientists and engineers on earth, but it has also matured from the glory days and become a political player, highly risk averse and less cutting edge in some ways.

Orion the spacecraft, a sort of nexgen Apollo capsule, might happen. Some might argue its superfluous and mainly a peace offering to traditional aerospace contractors, but it’s doable and, I think, reasonable. SLS, a nexgen Saturn V, is not realistic at current and projected funding rates. At that modest rate of progress, by the time it would be built and tested and become the workhorse some hope it will be, we would be into late 2020. Just politically, that means it would have to survive multiple turnovers in Congress and several Presidential administrations, all while the PR and commercial benefit is still years away.

There could be at least three separate boosters from three separate NewSpace companies I can think of right off the top of my head, all already in operation with a track record of over a decade, that could do the same job for way less in the same time period. There might even be private companies that can grab big chunks of asteroids and bring them back sooner and for way less by then. But I like the idea and think NASA and any private concerns should proceed, navigating whatever inefficient politics and logistics they have to, to make stuff like this happen.

Because, on the science side, it doesn’t really matter how they get samples, what matters is that we get lots of them. Think of asteroids today as the ground a few hundred years ago and the bedrock beneath; asteroids and comets are the rubble of the solar system. Right below our feet, for millennia, on ocean bottoms, fixed in solid rock, even preserved in ice cores, were the answers to questions humans had been asking since the dawn of our species.

But instead of looking down, digging in, and teasing those subtle clues out of the rock and ice, we spent a great deal of time and treasure looked up and imagining non existent deities with simplistic, easier to understand replies. Some of which might have been satisfying in their own way, many that were merely convenient for the powerful and devastating for most everyone else, but all of which were wrong.

The ancient forerunners of scientists could have collected rocks and fossils en masse, they could have carefully assembled lineages, they might have compared notes, and we might have begun to understand there was something akin to deep time, change in species, human ancestors, and the subtle interplay of uniformism and catastrophism in forming our world as early as the days of the first Pharaoh or the last Caesar. That science didn’t have to wait, once the shovel was invented we had the basic technology and a firm grasp of the concepts we needed to get started. But it took the industrial revolution and the wide-spread digging that ensued from it before modern geology and evolutionary biology and other natural sciences really got cooking. One big reason was that’s when we started cataloging samples, lots of samples.

Now, floating right before our telescopic eyes, are rocks and snowballs with more clues waiting to be teased out. Analysis of lots of samples from asteroids and comets will almost certainly further illuminate our solar system and universe in much the same way. For now that new ground lays before us, almost completely unbroken. Sample analysis and return missions like this will eventually pave the way to the answers to questions we have barely begun to ask.

If Venus was once a habitable world with warm liquid oceans, there is probably hunks of it with those clues preserved floating around somewhere. Same for Mars. There may even be pieces of ice from alien oceans near and far, evidence of planets that got flung into interstellar space or consumed by the sun, maybe even chunks of exosolar planets now located on the other side of the Milky Way, all floating around relatively nearby, all easily reached with present day methods.

The truth is out there.



  1. birgerjohansson says

    The planetary society has financed the construction of space sails,, which might be applied to get probes to objects unreachable with chemical rockets.
    As for towing small asteroids, I imagine this would be a job for Zubrin’s uranium-salt nuclear rockets. Since it is questionable if the reactions would be stable, I would prefer to operate them by remote control (the way Disaster Area operates their instruments in “The restaiurant at the end of the universe”).
    — — —
    “If Venus was once a habitable world with warm liquid oceans, there is probably hunks of it with those clues preserved floating around somewhere. Same for Mars.”

    I made that point in many Letters to the Editor, the year I heard about the meteorite ALH84001.
    Search the lunar and the Martian regolith, search for Oort cloud fragments that began their journey in the inner solar system.
    — — —
    “highly risk averse” indeed -which is why we need independent organisations like the Mars Society and the Planetary Society to push for real progress.

  2. lpetrich says

    Great idea, but once the asteroid is orbiting either the Earth or the Moon, one might send automated spacecraft to do experiments and return samples. I think that that’s a better idea — it’s cheaper, more fail-safe, and partially proven in several missions to the Moon and Mars.

    In fact, why try to grab an asteroid when one can send a spacecraft to land on one and collect samples from it?

    I remember an old friend presenting something *very* interesting on the economics of spaceflight.

    The cheapest thing to return from outer space is information.

    That’s why the most successful outer-space applications so far have been of automated spacecraft sent on one-way missions, with them radioing back what they find.

  3. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    Great idea and animation – cheers.

    I really hope we see this happen.

    I’m also a big fan of NASA for all its faults and problems it has certainly delivered so much joy and wonder and information and discoveries to all of us over the decades.

Leave a Reply