NASA Asks for Help Finding Asteroids and Capturing One

Catch it if you can. NASA is asking for help spotting asteroids (shown being created in an artist's conception of a catastrophic collision), and perhaps catching one with a spacecraft.


WASHINGTON, D.C.—Today at their headquarters here, NASA officials launched a two-pronged campaign that is mostly a call for help but is also an attempt to raise the profile of NASA's ambitious plan to snag a passing asteroid that astronauts could inspect close to home.

One component is a Grand Challenge—an element of President Barack Obama's Strategy for American Innovation—to "find all [asteroid] threats to human populations and know what to do about them," according to Jason Kessler of NASA's Office of the Chief Technologist. Because any asteroid headed toward Earth bigger than 40 meters or so in size could wipe out a city, the challenge is a tall order, said Harold Reitsema at the headquarters meeting. He is lead designer of the privately funded B612 effort to search for asteroids using a satellite. "I would like to emphasize how grand your Grand Challenge is," he said, pointing out that astronomers are finding only 1000 asteroids a year when they need to be finding 100,000 a year to develop a robust defense system.

Kessler acknowledged the problem but contended that "we do have the ability to prove that we are smarter than the dinosaurs," which were wiped out by a 10-kilometer asteroid. The president's fiscal year 2014 budget request includes $20 million to beef up NASA's existing search for "near-Earth objects," but the Grand Challenge would go further, Kessler said. There would be monetary prizes to encourage search innovations, crowdsourcing to speed up the identification of new objects, citizen science programs to draw in more amateur astronomers to the search, and a request for new ideas for how to improve and accelerate what NASA is already doing. The agency's effort to tap outside wisdom appeared to start paying off during the teleconference itself, which included questions and comments from a self-identified "mad scientist," a "geek," and a retired aerospace engineer.

The Grand Challenge to accelerate the discovery of threatening asteroids dovetails with NASA's proposed Asteroid Retrieval Mission, announced in early April. Before sending a robotic spacecraft to capture a 7- to 10-meter-diameter, 500-tonne asteroid and haul it into a high orbit around the moon where astronauts could study it, NASA will have to find a very special asteroid. It would have to be the right size and shape and be in the right orbit around the sun, among many constraints. Many planetary scientists have voiced concerns that no one could find and characterize enough candidates in time to meet NASA's launch schedule for the robotic spacecraft and the crewed vehicle that would carry astronauts out to the corralled asteroid.

NASA had two responses to those concerns. In the second prong of its campaign, the agency is issuing a request for information to any and all organizations—private and public—and any individuals—academic or otherwise—anywhere in the world for ideas about how to accomplish the retrieval mission. Officials also clarified that a crewed mission to an asteroid need not launch in 2021, as has appeared on NASA timelines. That could be put off as late as 2025 and still meet President Obama's goal of sending astronauts to an asteroid by then.

The agency also plans to collect information at NASA advisory group meetings, public gatherings, preliminary reviews, and from targeted requests for information. NASA will feed what it learns into a mission concept review by around the first of the year, officials said.