CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA is casting a wide net to flesh out a multipurpose, politically viable asteroid exploration initiative that serves scientists while simultaneously preparing for an eventual human expedition to Mars. 

It latest salvo was a purposely ambiguous solicitation for ideas about how to find all asteroids that threaten humanity and what to do about them.

NASA already has been working on the first part of that project. Its Near-Earth Objects (NEO) Observations Program, currently funded at $20.5 million, already has found about 95 percent of the larger asteroids — those with a diameter of 1 kilometer or larger — in orbits that pass near Earth. 

“If an object of that size were to impact the Earth, it would have global consequences,” Lindley Johnson, NASA program executive for the NEO observation program, told a NASA advisory committee on July 29.

The agency currently is about halfway the next phase of the program, a 15-year effort to find 90 percent of the asteroids that are as small as 140 meters in diameter.  

“One as much as 100 meters in size would have regional effects and could cause a great many casualties,” Johnson said.

The agency also wants to begin work on a potentially complementary program to robotically rendezvous with a nonthreatening asteroid and then relocate it or a piece of it into a stable high orbit around the Moon. The relocated object would then serve as the destination for one of the planned Orion capsule’s early crewed test flights. 

The Obama administration wants NASA to tackle both aspects of the asteroid initiative and has proposed doubling the agency’s $20 million budget for tracking near-Earth objects for the 2014 fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, as well as adding $85 million for the agency to step up work on solar electric propulsion and other technologies needed for the robotic asteroid rendezvous and relocation. 

NASA leaders met July 30 at agency headquarters in Washington to examine internal studies proposing multiple concepts and alternatives for each phase of the asteroid rendezvous mission. 

“At this meeting, we engaged in the critically important work of examining initial concepts to meet the goal of asteroid retrieval and exploration,” NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot, who chaired the review, said in a statement. “The agency’s science, technology and human exploration teams are working together to better understand near Earth asteroids, including ones potentially hazardous to our planet; demonstrate new technologies; and to send humans farther from home than ever before. I was extremely proud of the teams and the progress they have made so far. I look forward to integrating the inputs as we develop the mission concept further.”

NASA, meanwhile, continues to spend billions on a shuttle-derived, heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket and Orion capsule, though the purpose and destination for the deep-space transportation system has oscillated, at times precariously, between the Moon, asteroids, various gravitationally stable so-called Lagrange orbits and, ultimately, Mars. 

Uniting the factions is indeed a grand challenge and the focus of NASA’s latest initiative to find all the asteroids that threaten humanity and figure out what to do about them. The agency received 402 responses to its Request for Information, about 90 of which addressed finding asteroids and the rest focused on mitigation strategies. 

“It’s not a prize competition,” said NASA Chief Technologist Mason Peck. “It’s a large-scale effort that requires activities and contributions beyond NASA’s scope. We’re trying to leverage others to help us solve a hard problem.”

“We’re offering what we call a ‘North Star’ — a direction-finder for high-impact, multidisciplinary collaborations and also private-public partnerships,” Peck told another NASA advisory committee July 30. “We expect to bring in a lot of sources of partnership — interagency, international, academia, nongovernment organizations, philanthropic organizations, individual citizens.”

“Really, this is not a program,” Peck added. “It’s meant to be blurry boundaries. We are intentionally introducing ambiguity here so that in fact we can find the best value added from other organizations outside NASA to help us make progress.”

Among the groups responding to NASA’s “Asteroid Grand Challenge” were the nonprofit B612 Foundation, which is planning an asteroid-hunting space telescope called Sentinel, and Planetary Resources, a private company interested in eventually mining asteroids.

NASA plans a public meeting in Houston Sept. 30–Oct. 2 to discuss the asteroid proposals.