April 11, 2013

NASA budgets, Congressional Hearings, and Asteroids!

As I hinted at in my last post, NASA Wants to Bag an Asteroid, $105M has now been proposed for starting work on an asteroid retrieval and utilization mission in NASA’s official FY2014 budget.

NASA identified three areas for accelerated development:

  1. Asteroid observing efforts to identify target asteroids (twice current funding, 10x from a few years ago)
  2. Development of new technologies to encounter and capture the asteroid
  3. Demonstration of new propulsion technologies to power the mission to reposition the asteroid

In the three years since the President announced the goal of sending humans to an asteroid by 2025, this is the first major new activity specifically towards this goal.  As audacious as it may seem, I feel that the proposed mission represents bold new thinking about developing our capabilities in space.  It provides a number of opportunities for human and robotic exploration to work together, and also for the public and private sector to partner in furthering our presence in space.

If NASA is indeed to pursue this goal, it should leverage its public investment towards a lasting legacy.  A returned asteroid in trans-Lunar space is more than just an interesting place to visit, but an opportunity to utilize the resources of space to live and work in space indefinitely.  Just recently, Dr. Stephen Hawking was quoted in the press, urging the continuation of space exploration – for humanity’s sake.   By returning a volatile resource-rich Carbonaceous asteroid, we can create a laboratory or “test mine” in space for resources critical for humanity’s continued prosperity, both on Earth and in space.

Finding, capturing and repositioning a 500 ton asteroid certainly is a difficult, but achievable task.  Knowing the exact size and mass of an asteroid millions of kilometers away is a challenge with any kind of instrument.  If your plan is to grab and return one, you’ll want to make sure you can handle it once you get there! This is the reason why Planetary Resources is developing our Arkyd series of prospecting spacecraft – to send-out ahead of any mining activity and obtain the necessary answers.  By doing this, we know what to expect, and obtain the information how to make best use of the next visit.  In doing so, we’re developing the most sophisticated and cost-efficient way to explore and characterize near-Earth asteroids.  Perhaps NASA’s asteroid target is one we’d be interested in taking a look at ourselves.

As it works hand-in-hand with the private sector in the Commercial Crew and Cargo programs, NASA is learning that commercial capability is coming online in many areas that will become “routine” in the continued development of space.  Asteroids may be the next venue for that type of progressive partnership, and I hope NASA recognizes the opportunity to leverage the innovation and efficiency that is developing in the commercial arena.

NASA’s FY2014 budget wasn’t the only asteroid-related item in the news today (do asteroid events come in pairs?)  The third congressional hearing on asteroids this year took place, Threats from Space: A Review of Private Sector Efforts to Track and Mitigate Asteroids and Meteors, Part II.  Planetary Resources and the developing asteroid mining industry were mentioned during the proceeding, and we look forward to addressing the members at the appropriate time.

There will no doubt be a lot of discussion and debate on NASA’s latest direction – and I trust that we will find the right path forward and make the most of our public investment in space exploration.

In an era of decreasing public monies, is this what YOU would like to see NASA doing?

-Chris Lewicki

President & Chief Asteroid Miner