NASA issues Grand Challenge, calls for public, scientific help in tracking threatening asteroids

NASA trying to fast-track asteroid research and mitigation systems

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NASA again stepped up its plan to mitigate the asteroid threat to Earth by announcing two significant new programs that call on a multitude of scientists and organizations to help spot, track and possibly alter the direction of killer space rocks.

First off, the agency announced the latest in its series of Grand Challenges where it dares public and private partnerships to come up with a unique solution to a very tough problem, usually with prize money attached for the winner.  In the past NASA has sponsored such challenges regarding green aircraft and Mars/Moon rovers.

[RELATED: The sizzling world of asteroids]

Specifics of this asteroid challenge were spotty, but NASA said it will be a large-scale project "focused on detecting and characterizing asteroids and learning how to deal with potential threats. We will also harness public engagement, open innovation and citizen science to help solve this global problem," according to NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver.  The challenge will involve a variety of partnerships with other government agencies, international partners, industry, academia, and citizen scientists, NASA said.

In combination with the Grand Challenge, NASA put out a request for information (RFI) that invites industry and potential partners to offer ideas on accomplishing NASA's goal to locate, redirect, and explore an asteroid, as well as find and plan for asteroid threats. The RFI is open for 30 days, and responses will be used to help develop public engagement opportunities and a September industry workshop.

[RELATED: Earth-buzzing asteroid could be worth big bucks: $195B if we could catch it]

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is seeking information for system concepts and innovative approaches for the agencies recently announced Asteroid Initiative.  That mission involves redirecting an asteroid and parking it near the moon for study, possibly by 2021, as well as an increased study of how we can better defend the  against the threat of catastrophic asteroid collisions, NASA said.

The RFI is looking for a variety of input, including:

  • Asteroid Observation: NASA is interested in concepts for augmenting and accelerating ground and space-based capabilities for detecting all near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) - including those less than 10 meters in size that are in retrievable orbits - determining their orbits, and characterizing their shape, rotation state, mass, and composition as accurately as possible.
  • Asteroid Redirection Systems: NASA is interested in concepts for robotic spacecraft systems to enable rendezvous and proximity operations with an asteroid, and redirection of an asteroid of up to 1,000 metric tons into translunar space. a. Solar electric propulsion system concepts available for launch as early as 2017, but no later than June 2018, that have the following general characteristics: Capable of launch on a single Space Launch System (SLS) or preferably a smaller launch vehicle, as part of the complete asteroid redirect vehicle, which includes power generation, propellants, spacecraft bus, and asteroid capture system. Propulsion system power output approximately 40 kW to 50 kW. Deliver thrust required to propel a robotic spacecraft to a target near-Earth asteroid and redirect the captured asteroid to a distant lunar retrograde orbit.
  • Integrated sensing systems to support asteroid rendezvous, proximity operations, characterization, and capture. The sensing systems should be capable of characterizing the asteroid's size, shape, mass and inertia properties, spin state, surface properties, and composition. Some of the same sensors will also be needed in closed-loop control during capture.
  • Refinements of the Asteroid Redirect Mission concept such as removing a piece (boulder) from the surface of a large asteroid, and redirecting the piece into translunar space, and other innovative approaches. For a description of early asteroid redirect approaches, see the Keck Institute for Space Studies Asteroid Retrieval Feasibility Study on the references website listed later in this RFI.
  • Applications of satellite servicing technology to asteroid rendezvous, capture, and redirection, and opportunities for dual use technology development are also of interest.
  • Asteroid Deflection Demonstration: NASA is interested in concepts for deflecting the trajectory of an asteroid using the robotic Asteroid Redirection Vehicle (ARV) that would be effective against objects large enough to do significant damage at the Earth's surface should they impact (i.e. > 100 meters in size). These demonstrations could include but not limited to: a. Use of the ARV to demonstrate a slow push trajectory modification on a larger asteroid. b. Use of the ARV to demonstrate a "gravity tractor" technique on an asteroid. c. Use of ARV instrumentation for investigations useful to planetary defense (e.g. sub-surface penetrating imaging) d. Use of deployables from the ARV to demonstrate techniques useful to planetary defense (e.g. deployment of a stand alone transponder for continued tracking of the asteroid over a longer period of time).
  • Asteroid Capture Systems: NASA is interested in concepts for systems to capture and de-spin an asteroid with the following characteristics: a. Asteroid size: 5 m < mean diameter < 13 m; aspect ratio < 2/1 b. Asteroid mass: up to 1,000 metric tons c. Asteroid rotation rate: up to 2 revolutions per minute about any axis or all axes. d. Asteroid composition, internal structure, and physical integrity will likely be unknown until after rendezvous and capture.
  • Crew Systems for Asteroid Exploration: NASA is interested in concepts for lightweight and low volume robotic and extra-vehicular activity (EVA) systems, such as space suits, tools, translation aids, stowage containers, and other equipment, that will allow astronauts to explore the surface of a captured asteroid, prospect for resources, and collect samples.

 [MORE: No bomb powerful enough to destroy an on-rushing asteroid, sorry Bruce Willis]

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