NASA Stepping Up Hunt for Scary Asteroids

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NASA on Tuesday unveiled a multipurpose initiative to find, track and potentially relocate asteroids that may be on a collision course with Earth. The project doubles as a steppingstone toward NASA’s next human space exploration project which entails capturing a small asteroid, moving it into an orbit around the moon and sending a crew of astronauts to visit it by 2021.

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“This ‘Grand Challenge’ is focused on detecting and characterizing asteroids and learning how to deal with potential threats,” NASA’s deputy administrator Lori Garver said in a statement.

The agency is looking for partners of all kinds — industrial, educational, even crowdsourcing.

In its solicitation for proposals issued Tuesday,  NASA outlined six areas of interest. They include:

  • Concepts for enhancing and speeding up ongoing ground- and  space-based projects to detect asteroids. The agency estimates it already has found up to 98 percent of the large asteroids, 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) in diameter or larger with orbits that pass relatively close to Earth. An object of this size could end civilization on this planet as we know it if it struck, similar to the global environmental changes that followed the asteroid impact 65 million years ago that led to the demise of the dinosaurs and most other life on Earth at that time. NASA now wants to find asteroids as small as 10 meters (33 feet) in diameter.
  • Robotic tools and techniques to redirect an asteroid up to 1,000 metric tons in mass into a distant orbit around the moon. Specifically, NASA is eying electric propulsion systems that would be ready to fly within five years. The systems also should include sensors to determine an asteroid’s size, shape, mass, spin rate, surface conditions and composition and other characteristics. If the system can double as a way to service satellites in orbit, so much the better.
  • Proposals for shifting an asteroid’s flight path with a robotic spacecraft, called in NASA parlance an “Asteroid Redirection Vehicle.”
  • Systems that could capture and de-spin an asteroid up to 1,000 metric tons in mass. “NASA is interested in evaluating a variety of concepts and supporting technologies for an asteroid capture system, such as deployable and inflatable structures, capture bags, robotic mechanisms, modeling and simulation, telerobotic operations, and other innovative approaches,” the agency wrote in its solicitation.
  • Equipment and technologies needed for human missions to an asteroid, including concepts for lightweight spacesuits, robotic probes and support  equipment, such as stowage containers.
  • Finally, the agency wants partners to find the asteroids, help finance the projects and engage students and the public in the effort.

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“NASA wants to expand upon current (near-Earth asteroid) observation efforts through the use of innovative methods such as crowd sourcing, prizes and challenges, citizen science, and public-private partnerships to increase the resources for tackling the planetary defense problem and to broaden participation,” the agency wrote in its solicitation.

Proposals are due July 18.

Image credit: NASA

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