NASA Deploying New Tech to Track and Capture Asteroids

NASA Deploying New Tech to Track and Capture Asteroids

NASA's Spacetech team has some cool new surprises - from inflatable asteroid capture devices to the largest solar sails ever.

Following the announcement of its asteroid initiative, NASA has released more details about the technologies that will be used to robotically capture and return an asteroid to stable orbit in lunar space for study. Key to the mission are inflatable modules, solar electric propulsion, and solar sail technology. Building the asteroid initiative will rest primarily on getting a spacecraft there and back - the capture isn't the most complicated thing on NASA's plate. Michael Gazarik, Associate Administrator of NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate - called Spacetech - says that getting there will be a matter of improving NASA's current solar electric propulsion and ion thrust capabilities. "For a class of mission like capturing an asteroid and returning it to lunar space ... capturing an asteroid using inflatable work and large scale solar scale, they're working on those techs right now." Solar electric efforts, said Gazarik, are already underway.

Solar electric propulsion, Gazarik says, is old technology that needs to be improved. "We started working on solar electric projects last year," said Gazarik, and he expects that foresight to pay off during the asteroid initiative. In order to get to an asteroid and back, a higher power solar electric array is going to be needed. Solar electric propulsion uses solar panels to grab the sun's energy and convert that into an ion thrust. To get to higher power levels, the spacecraft would need larger solar arrays than are currently feasible to carry into space. That necessitates more compact deployable arrays, and better electronics to conduct that energy without losing power. Recent developments in magnetic shielding have increased the lifetime of ion thrusters 5-10 years - very close to what the asteroid initiative will need. Another way of getting the spacecraft where it goes, said Gazarik, might be solar sails. To that end Spacetech will be launching and testing the largest solar sail in history some time in the next two years - hopefully 2014 or the beginning of 2015. That sail will be about the size of a dishwasher and fold out to be about 100 feet on a side.

Meanwhile, NASA recently tested the Near-Earth Object Camera, or NEOCam, the centerpiece of the proposed system for tracking asteroids near to Earth. NEOCam is an infrared, as opposed to visible light, telescope that will be used to evaluate potentially hazardous asteroids near our planet. NEOCam has an easier time finding the types of Near-Earth objects that are possible hazards because asteroids are found based on the amount of light they reflect, not on their actual sizes - and a small asteroid can reflect as much light as a large one. A well oiled, functional Near-Earth Object Program Office will be key, said Gazarik, to finding a suitable candidate for the asteroid initiative. With NEOCam, or devices like it, we may be able to identify an asteroid small enough to capture.

NASA's newly formed Space Technology Mission Directorate will be taking a key role in the asteroid projects, using technology that has been in development for, in some cases, years. In addition to asteroid initiative projects, they are working on space manufacturing, cryogenic propellants, and more efficient supersonic parachutes for planetary landings.

Image: NASA

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capture asteroids?

i sense a new pokemon....

OT: Cool stuff, not much more to say really.

How has no one at NASA ever played EVE? Mining rocks is boring guys.

Somehow, I don't think bringing asteroids into Earth's orbit is a good idea. Maybe we should mine them out there, where there's no chance of them hitting into things we care about, like the ISS or the Moon. Or us.

SecondPrize:
How has no one at NASA ever played EVE? Mining rocks is boring guys.

Considering Nasa's budget, playing EVE is probably ALL they do.

Daaaah Whoosh:
Somehow, I don't think bringing asteroids into Earth's orbit is a good idea. Maybe we should mine them out there, where there's no chance of them hitting into things we care about, like the ISS or the Moon. Or us.

They're actually towing it into the moon's orbit, not ours. And I'm not particularly bothered by the prospect of the moon getting struck by an asteroid for the ten millionth time, especially one with a mere seven-meter diameter.

Are they mining these asteroids or just studying them. If they're just studying them, what are they hoping to find?

Good old NASA. give them a little money and they start doing space magic.

SecondPrize:
How has no one at NASA ever played EVE? Mining rocks is boring guys.

i love mining in eve. doing missions is boring. Eve is not about shooting, its about calculating, efficiency, competition.

kailus13:
Are they mining these asteroids or just studying them. If they're just studying them, what are they hoping to find?

Studying them. With the hope of finding out whether it's worth mining them. Seriously, the amount of gold and other rare metals predicted to be within asteroids - this could prove to be an incredibly profitable venture.

Other studying goals include more mundane stuff, like how the solar system formed, the exact age of our sun, whether there is bacteria on asteroids... you know, nothing too groundbreaking.

Just wait and see guys...the batarians will hijack the asteroid in no time.

SecondPrize:
How has no one at NASA ever played EVE? Mining rocks is boring guys.

Because EVE totally represents our current space travel capabilities and depicts realistic asteroid mining?

Nasa needs to be able to develop safe and reliable means to track and intercept small asteroids for many reasons. The obvious ones would be things like studying the chemical components of asteroids that are still in space, whether asteroid mining can ever become a profitable venture and oh... I don't know... possibly deflect incoming asteroids that threaten life on Earth.

This is also giving them the funding opportunities to develop better propulsion technologies and given how much technological advancement Nasa has already contributed to our everyday life, back when they were being properly funded, this is a plus in my book.

Awesome! We'll need this tech to bombard the Mass Relay beyond Pluto when we find it.

They should add this to Kerbal Space Program...you know, just to make it even more challenging :D

 

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