If the recent spate of asteroid flybys has you a bit freaked out, don’t worry. NASA is working on a potential way to avert an asteroid Armageddon by intercepting these chunks of interstellar rock long before they ever have a chance to impact the Earth’s surface.
The current vision, most recently outlined at the Human to Mars Summit in Washington, D.C. by NASA chief Charles Bolden, involves a bold vision to “lasso” asteroids and tug them into a new lunar orbit where astronauts can study them. Thanks to the development of futuristic new technologies such as the ion propulsion engine – NASA thinks it’s realistic that astronauts could be tethering to an asteroid near the moon sometime within the next decade.
The NASA asteroid lasso scenario has $78 million allotted to it in the president’s fiscal 2014 budget proposal and relies on an unmanned NASA spacecraft being able to fly millions of miles into deep space, capture an asteroid with a huge net (the “lasso”), and then nudge and guide the piece of rock into a new orbit in the neighborhood of the moon. Once there, it should be relatively easy for astronauts to study the asteroid and develop further insights into interplanetary defense systems against incoming asteroids. Given current White House backing for the mission, the unmanned spaceship would leave Earth by 2019 and return by 2021, asteroid in tow.
To make all this work, however, will require a number of technologies that are just now in their infancy. For example, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California and the Glenn Research Center in Ohio are both working on a sci-fi sounding “ion propulsion engine” that depends on a non-traditional fuel source to propel the spacecraft through deep space at unfathomable speeds. If the former Space Shuttle topped out at 18,000 mph, the new ion propulsion engine would enable a futuristic robotic spacecraft to travel at speeds of close to 200,000 mph. (By way of comparison, the speed of light is 186,000 miles per second).
Then, of course, there’s the matter of the lasso itself that’s capable of pulling a 2-mile wide piece of rock millions of miles in outer space, while being bombarded by cosmic radiation. When you’re flying at 200,000 mph, do you just have a robot throw a piece of rope out the window to lasso an asteroid the way a Texas cowboy might lasso a bucking bronco?
And, even if NASA can lasso an asteroid, should it even try?
Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin, for example, has been an outspoken critic of NASA plans to launch an asteroid lasso mission. According to Aldrin, we should be focused first and foremost on a mission to Mars rather than making whimsical trips to deep space to rendezvous with asteroids. While Aldrin acknowledges the possible scientific value of studying and capturing Near Earth Objects, he’s also concerned, that in an era of limited budgets, putting too much money into unmanned asteroid lasso missions could set back manned space exploration to colonize the Red Planet.
Ultimately, attempting to lasso an asteroid in deep space may not be as crazy as it sounds (even if it sounds like a recycled Hollywood plot outline), especially if it leads to the type of innovative technologies that make manned interplanetary travel a reality. As NASA likes to remind us, Earth is in an interplanetary shooting gallery, with asteroids and meteors whizzing by every now and then. If we’re to avoid the fate of every other single-planet species, we’ve got to think about all of our potential options sooner rather than later. Look at the bright side—even with all the technological kinks we’ve got to work out for an asteroid lasso mission, we’ve still got a two-decade head start on the next big asteroid that’s on a potential collision path with our Pale Blue Dot.