NASA has been given the go ahead for an asteroid capture mission after the US President included it in his 2014 budget.
Barack Obama wants NASA to start work on finding a small asteroid that could be shifted into an orbit near the moon and used by astronauts as a stepping-stone for an eventual mission to Mars, agency officials said yesterday.
The project, which envisions that astronauts could visit such an asteroid as early as 2021, is included in Obama's $17.7bn spending plan for the US space agency for the 2014 fiscal year.
It is intended as an expansion of existing initiatives to find asteroids that may be on a collision course with Earth, and preparations for a human expedition to Mars in the 2030s.
"This mission allows us to better develop our technology and systems to explore farther than we've ever been before, to an asteroid and to Mars, places that humanity has dreamed about but has had no hope of ever attaining," NASA administrator Charles Bolden told reporters during a conference call.
"We're on the threshold of being able to tell my kids and my grandkids that we're almost there."
In 2010, Obama proposed that NASA follow the International Space Station program with a human mission to an asteroid by 2025 and the agency has been developing a heavy-lift rocket and deep-space capsule capable of carrying astronauts beyond the station's 250-mile high orbit.
The system would be capable of traveling to the moon, asteroids and eventually to Mars, the long-term goal of the US human space program.
"I think the asteroid-retrieval mission lays out a place for us to go," Kennedy Space Center director Bob Cabana told reporters in a separate conference call. "It does everything that needs to be done as far as developing the technologies and the skills that we need for exploration beyond planet Earth."
Obama's 2014 spending plan proposes $105m to start work on the new mission, which entails finding a 7 to 10-metre wide asteroid and robotically towing or pushing it toward Earth so it ends up in a stable orbit near the moon.
Astronauts aboard an Orion capsule would then blast off, land on the asteroid and bring back soil and rock samples for analysis.
"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," US Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, told reporters last week.
Obama's budget proposal calls for a doubling of the $20m NASA currently spends hunting and tracking asteroids; adding $38m to speed development of a solar electric propulsion system that would be used to move an asteroid; $40m for work on rendezvous and capture technologies; and $7m for hazard-avoidance systems.
NASA plans to partner with fledging space mining companies, such as startups Planetary Resourcesand Deep Space Industries, as well as agencies interested in planetary defence.
"Obviously we're looking all sorts of interests in this asteroid mission in terms of the kinds of scientific and industrial uses that could be spawned from it,” NASA chief financial officer Elizabeth Robinson said.
Obama is also requesting $822m to support efforts to develop commercial space taxis in hopes of breaking Russia's monopoly on crew transportation to the space station by 2017 as the US has been unable to fly astronauts since it retired its space shuttle fleet in 2011.