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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