By Douglas Messier
Parabolic Arc Managing Editor
NASA will partner with private organizations seeking to catalog and mine asteroids as the space agency undertakes an ambitious effort to retrieve one of these bodies and send astronauts to explore it, Deputy Administrator Lori Garver told planetary scientists on Monday.
“When Planetary Resources was founded a few month ago and following on that Deep Space Industries, I could not have been happier,” Garver said, referring to two asteroid mining companies announced last year. “It’s proving our focus of attention on areas where there is not just U.S. government interest.”
Speaking on the first day of the Planetary Defense Conference in Flagstaff, Ariz., Garver said NASA would conduct a workshop in the June time frame to determine how the space agency can cooperate with private sector initiatives and best leverage its investment in asteroid research and deep-space exploration technologies.
“The identification aspect of this, in particular, should be done through things like data buys, taking advantage of cooperative research agreements, Space Act Agreements, prizes,” she said. “We believe there are lots of innovative ways, just like we are doing in other aspects of NASA….We know that NASA’s role uniquely is to drive the technology, help to drive risk down risk actually so others can go further.”
NASA already has an unfunded Space Act Agreement with the B612 Foundation, a private organization that is building a space telescope designed to find and track asteroids that could threaten Earth.
“If anything, folks who are considering investing in B612 should see this as an incredibly positive step that the U.S. government is stepping up, taking this seriously, this data will be needed,” Garver said. “And we’re going to look for more innovative ways to leverage our investment to help them and other private sector entities advance our goals.”
Garver’s appearance at the Planetary Defense Conference corresponded with the third anniversary of President Barack Obama’s announcement that the nation would send astronauts to an asteroid.
“The President challenged us three years ago to do that, lots of you worked tirelessly to find a way to be able to achieve that goal by 2025 which is what he challenged us to do, and this is really the culmination of that effort is to be able to present this program in this budget, she said. “This is a very exciting time.”
NASA has requested $105 million in its FY 2014 budget to begin work on the asteroid retrieval mission, which would occur in the early 2020’s. The funding request includes an additional $20 million for finding asteroids, $38 million for technology demonstration work, and $40 million for developing a capture system, Garver said.
The NASA deputy administrator noted that the Obama Administration has already quintupled the nation’s investment in finding asteroids in order to detect ones that could threaten Earth. The funding was previously at $4 million and is now at $20 million, a figure that the FY 2014 budget would double.
The asteroid retrieval mission aligns many of NASA’s programs and would further the goals of scientific exploration, economic development and planetary protection.
Quoting astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the NASA deputy administrator said that government fund space missions for three reasons: fear, greed and glory. “NASA does all three,” Garver said.
Original plans called for sending astronauts to visit an asteroid using the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft. The new mission, unveiled last week, would return a small asteroid to a stable orbit in the vicinity of Earth, where astronauts would visit it and return samples in the 2021-23 time frame.
“It takes the risky part of the mission away from the human spaceflight part, which is excellent,” she said. “It allows you to do that in a way that is very innovative. And we think it’s really part of what NASA was set up to do. We absolutely believe that overall, to the asteroid community, that this is of benefit.”
NASA’s mission is closely aligned with the Asteroid Retrieval Feasibility Study published in April 2012 by the Keck Institute for Space Studies. Garver said additional work has been done over the past year to develop the mission plan.
An attendee at the Planetary Defense Conference questioned how easy it would be to capture a fast-moving asteroid and move it to a stable orbit near Earth by 2021.
“It turns out we do risky things at NASA,” Garver responded. “Do we do these things because they’re easy? We do not. And, of course, we recognize a lot of challenges.”