The Perry Como song with its memorable chorus, “Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket/Never let it fade away,” may have to be rewritten when NASA finally gets its hands on an asteroid.
In the early 2020s, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration will launch a robot probe that looks like an oversized Dixie Cup to retrieve a 20-to-30-foot-wide asteroid. The probe will use yet-to-be-developed solar-electric propulsion technology to tow the asteroid back to high Earth orbit, where it can be safely studied.
Future astronauts will use the captured asteroid as a staging ground for manned takeoffs and landings, even though it is relatively small compared with other asteroids that populate the Earth’s neighborhood. The venture is part of an ambitious NASA program to address concerns that asteroids with the potential to harm the planet are being detected relatively late in the game.
An international consensus is forming about the wisdom of developing proactive methods and technology to divert asteroids from a collision course with Earth, instead of waiting to come up with a solution once a threat is on the horizon. What NASA learns from studying the asteroid will help scientists deal with the dangers of far bigger rocks that may come this way.
The Obama Administration has proposed $17.7 billion for NASA’s fiscal 2014 budget; $105 million is earmarked for work and research on the asteroid retrieval mission. The total cost of identifying, capturing, and hauling the 1.1-million-pound asteroid to Earth orbit by 2025 is estimated at $2.65 billion.
Much of the necessary technology must still be devised. But the asteroid project could galvanize the aerospace industry in much the same way that the moon race did in the 1960s.
As a return on investment, it can’t be beat — especially if it spares mankind an apocalyptic encounter with an asteroid.