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NASA Asteroid Retrieval Mission Becomes Global Grand Challenge

NASA’s proposed asteroid identification and redirect mission proposal was elevated to “Grand Challenge” status in Washington on Tuesday by the Obama Administration.

Artist's illustration of asteroid threat. Image Credit/NASA

The featured theme of President Obama’s proposed 2014 NASA budget is now on par with John Kennedy’s call to reach the moon with human explorers, unraveling the human genome, exploiting solar power as a clean energy source and increasing the reliability and convenience of electric cars, Tom Kalil, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s deputy director for technology and innovation, told a  NASA-sponsored Washington conference on the issue.

The Grand Challenge strategy calls on other federal agencies, U. S. industry, academia and citizen scientists as well as their international counterparts to rally around an ambitious attempt to complete the cataloguing of asteroids that pose a collision threat to the Earth and demonstrating a deflection strategy.

“We want to prove that we are in fact smarter than the dinosaurs,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, who helped to open the half-day conference that featured a range of NASA experts on the topic.

Lori Garver addresses NASA industry and partner day conference in Washington. Photo Credit/NASA


Her reference was to a major impact from a Near Earth Object  an estimated 65 million years ago that wiped out the giant reptiles. Had the dinosaurs had the wherewithal to detect and deflect an asteroid or comet before it struck, their species might still roam the Earth today, according to NASA’s second in command.

As part of the Grand Challenge kickoff, NASA issued a request for information, or RFI, that seeks suggestions on a half-dozen asteroid fronts. Those include techniques for identifying the small, dim objects that pose a potential regional hazard as well as the largest asteroids that pose a global threat; capture and deflection techniques; hardware and protective space suits for astronauts selected to explore the asteroids; and partnership strategies.

Proposals in response to the NASA query are due July 18 and will be folded into a larger space agency initiative linked to the agency’s 2014 budget request.

“Ultimately, our challenge statement is to find all asteroid threats to human populations and know what to do about them,” said Garver. “We’ve had this charge for a long time, really. What we are doing today is communicate that in a way hopefully will allow even more people let us know how they can help us to meet that challenge.”

Small asteroid leaves a trail before exploding over Russia on Feb. 15. Photo Credit/NASA

The urgency of the asteroid threat to the planet surfaced on Feb. 15. For weeks ahead, scientists knew that the large asteroid 2012 DA14 would pass safely within 22,000 miles of the Earth. What they did not predict was that a much smaller asteroid would explode early on the same day over Chelyabinsk, Russia. Injuries from the powerful shock wave that accompanied the high altitude blast sent more than 1,000 people in the region to area hospitals with injuries, according to local news accounts.

In 1994, large fragments from the shattered comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 plowed into Jupiter over several days as fascinated astronomers watched from Earth. The event prompted a call from Congress to step up the detection of asteroids and comets that posed the same threat to Earth.

At this point, experts believe they have identified 90 percent of the largest asteroids, those greater than 1 kilometer, but just 60 percent of those between 300 meters and 1 kilometer — smaller but still big enough to prove regionally devastating, John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for science, told the Washington gathering.

“There are a lot of challenges,” he acknowledged.

Congress is considering a $105 million line in NASA’s proposed 2014 budget to merge asteroid detection and deflection into the president’s previously announced goal of developing the exploration capabilities to reach a yet-to-be-designated asteroid withU. S.explorers by 2025. The mission would serve as a stepping stone to an eventual human mission to Mars.

If lawmakers approve, NASA would identify, then launch a robotic mission to rendezvous with and corral a 500 ton asteroid. Next, the robotic probe would steer the captive asteroid into a stable orbit around the moon. NASA astronauts riding in an Orion capsule and launched atop NASA’s new Space Launch System would attempt to rendezvous with the retrieved asteroid as soon as 2021.

Some in Congress oppose NASA’s asteroid ambitions, believing the space agency should focus its efforts on a lunar base first, then Mars.

Tuesday’s Grand Challenge from NASA quickly earned endorsement from the B612 Foundation, aMountain View,Calif., non profit that has long warned of the threat posed by Near Earth Objects that venture too close to the Earth.

“There are one million asteroids with the potential to impact Earth with energy large enough to obliterate any major city,” Ed Lu, the former NASA astronaut who serves as B612′s chairman, cautioned Tuesday.  “We believe that the goal must be to find these one million asteroids – anything less, in our opinion, would not meet the intent of this Grand Challenge.”

Last year, B612 outlined plans to launch Sentinel, a private unpiloted space observatory developed specifically to identify and track asteroids that could impact the Earth. The foundation, which is raising funds to support its objective, plans a 2018 launch.





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