White House Sets Sights on Asteroid Capture Mission

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The White House will ask Congress for $105 million in 2014 to get started on a mission to capture an asteroid and return it to a high lunar orbit, where it would be visited in 2025 by astronauts launched aboard the heavy-lift rocket being developed by NASA, a U.S. government source said.

According to this source, who requested anonymity to discuss the White House’s 2014 budget request in advance of its April 10 public unveiling, the proposed mission will cost somewhere between $1 billion and $2.6 billion over 11 years. The White House is not seeking an increase to NASA’s budget for this mission, the source said.

The asteroid tug mission would be jointly funded and managed by NASA’s Science, Human Exploration and Space Technology mission directorates. The $105 million to be requested in 2014 includes:

  • $20 million for the Science Mission Directorate to improve its asteroid detection technology.
  • $40 million for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate for early work on a robotic spacecraft capable of capturing an asteroid and hauling it to lunar space.
  • $45 million for the Space Technology Mission Directorate for a solar electric propulsion system to power the asteroid-capture spacecraft.

The robotic asteroid tug could launch as soon as 2017 or 2018, the source said. NASA has not decided which asteroid it wants to target but has already identified a handful of candidates, the government source said.

The mission NASA has decided to fund is based on a study completed last year by the Keck Institute for Space Studies, part of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. That study examined the feasibility of hauling a 500-ton asteroid into lunar orbit.

The Keck study assumed that the asteroid capture vehicle would launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), a strong supporter of the heavy-lift Space Launch System that would carry astronauts to the parked asteroid from a launchpad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, praised the proposed mission in an April 5 press release.

“This is part of what will be a much broader program,” Nelson said in the press release. “The plan combines the science of mining an asteroid, along with developing ways to deflect one, along with providing a place to develop ways we can go to Mars.”