Yesterday NASA announced the start of a “Grand Challenge”, an ambitious goal at a global level, in this case the detection of all the asteroids that might pose a threat to Earth. It’s a project that is supposed to involve other government agencies as well as international partners, scientific institutions, private companies and even amateur astronomers.
In recent months, NASA presented a proposal regarding a mission that aims to send a spacecraft capable of capturing a small asteroid of the NEO (Near-Earth Object) type, which is the type whose orbit brings it near the Earth, and move it into an orbit in the Earth-Moon system where it can do no damage.
Another proposal for a simpler mission is called OSIRIS-REx (Origins-Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer), which would consist in building a spacecraft capable of reaching the asteroid Bennu, take an sample of it and bring it back to Earth. The launch could in theory take place in 2016.
The problem is in the costs of those projects. In recent years it’s become more and more difficult to find funding for new missions because of continuing budget cuts and disagreements on how to use it. In essence, the White House makes certain proposals, the Congress makes others and what is eventually approved is the result of various compromises.
While politicians argue, various asteroids continue to pass near the Earth and in February 2013 a meteorite hit Russia. It was a really small object that got fragmented in the atmosphere, yet it caused enormous damage with many people injured. ESA recently opened a center to monitor objects of the NEO type precisely because now there’s a great awareness of this danger.
NASA has also set up a meeting with representatives of large companies to assess the possibility to work together on the surveillance of the skies but also on possible space missions. The interested companies work mainly in the aerospace field and some are already NASA’s partners such as SpaceX but there’s also Google.
NASA’s appeal was also aimed at scientific institutions and amateur astronomers to coordinate new projects for monitoring the near-Earth space. A “request for information” (RFI) was released, an invitation to offer ideas to locate but also to deflect and explore asteroids.
Recently there had already been some companies that showed interest in space missions to asteroids to mine them to use their minerals. Now there might be the possibility of coordinating the efforts of various partners in order to eliminate the potential dangers of asteroids and perhaps turn them into useful goods.