Imagine a house-sized asteroid floating along in deep space, minding its own business, when along comes a robotic spacecraft with large solar panels that unleashes a capturing mechanism to catch and carry the asteroid on a two-year journey into the Earth-Moon system. There, it will remain stable in orbit for astronauts to visit, explore and collect samples to bring back to Earth.
To some, the idea might seem a bit far-fetched. But according to Mike Gazarik, Associate Administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD), the Agency has been working on some of the technologies needed to complete this type of mission for years.
"What this mission does, what this concept does, is really bring everything together in a synergistic fashion," Gazarik said. "It leverages all the work we're doing now."
To a filled auditorium of employees at NASA's Langley Research Center, Gazarik argued that capturing an asteroid in the mid-2020s is going to be about the technology, and the community of people creating it.
In Gazarik's office sits a stack of 40-plus reports that date back to the 1980s about progressing technology.
"They all say the same thing," he said. "We need less studying and more technology development."
Some necessary technologies for making what might seem impossible possible include the human-rated rocket and capsule and solar electric propulsion (SEP), which are already in development.
Three compelling elements of this mission, according to Gazarik, include asteroid detection and characterization, capture and redirection, and a crew mission using NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion to explore and sample.
"Whether you believe in this mission or not, I would argue that whatever we do will help," Gazarik said.
NASA's STMD, a stand-alone technology organization, intends to demonstrate new capabilities to operate in deep space. And it could pave the way for increased planetary protection by augmenting and moving larger "killer asteroids."
The technologies will start from the early stages of study and development and progress into demonstration. Focused technology areas in STMD were narrowed from 293 technologies down to the "big nine." Some of those include a composite cryotank, green propellants and a large-scale solar sail that will be about the length of two space shuttles when lying on the ground. It also includes telerobotics and an inflatable supersonic aerodynamic decelerator.
"The technologies we are developing make missions more capable and more affordable," Gazarik said. "Technology can solve problems, it can add capability and can make capability."
According to Gazarik, it's about leveraging what is being developed in the commercial industry and investing in the nation's economy to solve problems. Exploring deep space more than 200 miles above the Earth’s surface has many challenges. Gazarik believes that it is up to NASA to address and reduce the risks involved — something that private industry can't often do.
Gazarik expects that grants and prizes will be offered to the academic community for some of the early stage work. NASA will also continue to rely on astronomers to assist with asteroid detection.
Not all of STMD's focused technologies will lead us to an asteroid. Gazarik also spoke about the development of hands-free jet packs, exoskeletons that could potentially help Wounded Warriors to walk again and a low-cost nano-launch system. Despite the destination of the technology, he believes it all has an important place in time.
"Given where we are now, we have the International Space Station with a full crew on board; we're looking into long duration stays on the ISS; we're developing a rocket that will launch off of American soil to get to the ISS; the development of a rocket that will allow us to explore deep space, the capsule, the technologies," Gazarik said. "We will be continuing to lead the world in human exploration and scientific exploration.
"If you look at what we're learning about exoplanets and other solar systems in the universe, if you look at what Hubble has done in terms of changing the history books for understanding our universe, and the next mission, the James Webb Space Telescope, we anticipate again, we will re-write history books as we look farther back in time than we ever have before."