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NASA’s Grand Challenge complements daring asteroid capture mission

On Tuesday, NASA announced a Grand Challenge focused on finding all asteroid threats to human populations and learning how to deal with these potential threats. This large-scale effort will make use of multi-disciplinary collaborations and a variety of partnerships between other government agencies, international partners, industry, academia, and citizen scientists, and are an important element of President Obama’s Strategy for American Innovation.

This announcement complements NASA’s recently announced mission to redirect an asteroid for human study. The plan would make use of a robotic spacecraft to capture a roughly 23-foot-wide asteroid, and redirect it to an orbit closer to the moon. Once there, NASA would launch a human mission to rendezvous with the asteroid for exploration.

The asteroid mission was proposed as an initial step toward NASA’s ultimate goal — sending astronauts to Mars. Yet many questioned the mission’s technical plan, budget and schedule. Some members of Congress would prefer to send astronauts back to the moon instead, for use as a training ground.

One of the heads behind the asteroid mission was there to defend the plan, arguing that this mission creates the first step beyond the moon. Within the current budget, it is a viable step that we are now capable of performing.

In addition to providing a testing ground for new solar electric propulsion technologies, the asteroid mission would further our understanding of these space rocks that populate our solar system. There may even come a time when it may be necessary to divert an asteroid from its orbit if it poses a risk of colliding with Earth. The asteroid chosen for retrieval would be too small to pose any such risk to the planet, but will be large enough to be an interesting object of study.

However, many agree that, whichever plan NASA ultimately decides on, the space agency needs to be given the necessary funding to achieve it. For years, NASA has had to cope with an increasingly small budget, which makes it difficult to embark on new and innovative undertakings. And this problem is only getting worse.

NASA has released a request for information (RFI) inviting industry and potential partners to offer ideas on accomplishing its goal to locate, redirect, and explore an asteroid, as well as find and plan for asteroid threats. The RFI will be open for 30 days. Responses will be used to develop public engagement opportunities and an industry workshop in September.