In the process of detailing its $17.7 billion 2014 budget this week, NASA highlighted a mission to snag a 500 ton asteroid, bring it back, stash it near the moon and study it. It also took the time to put in a plug for an ongoing research project it has gong called Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) that NASA says could be the key technology it needs to pull off the asteroid plan.
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Both plans are audacious in this age of budget austerity and it will be interesting to see if NASA gets the funding to do either project. But I digress.
As for the Solar Electric Propulsion technology, NASA says studies have shown the advantages of using such as system would be a great way to transport heavy payloads from low Earth orbit to higher orbits. The idea would be that traditional chemical rockets could deliver payloads to low Earth orbit and solar electric propulsion could then power a spacecraft to higher energy orbits, including Lagrange points or a potential assembly point in space between Earth and the moon. This approach could facilitate missions to near Earth asteroids and other destinations in deep space, NASA said.
In 2011, NASA split $6 million amongst Analytical Mechanics Associates; Ball Aerospace & Technologies; Boeing; Lockheed Martin Space Systems; and Northrop Grumman Systems to begin studying the feasibility of solar electric propulsion that might ultimately lead to the development of some variation of a test spacecraft.
At that time NASA said: "Flying a demonstration mission on a representative trajectory through the Van Allen radiation belts and operating in actual space environments could reveal unknown systems-level and operational issues. Mission data will lower the technical and cost risk associated with future solar electric propulsion spacecraft. The flight demonstration mission would test and validate key capabilities and technologies required for future exploration elements such as a 300 kilowatt solar electric transfer vehicle."
As for the asteroid snagging plan, NASA would need a robotic spacecraft capable of getting to the object, capturing it and transporting it back into our space realm. When that might happen is anyone's guess but the agency had in place a plan to at least visit an asteroid by 2025 and this new plan would fit in with that idea, NASA said.
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