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A couple of weeks ago, I called on American lawmakers and you, my fellow lovers of science, to see that NASA gets the funding that it needs to do its job. I mean if NASA's not going to study the universe, explain it to the world and redefine what discovery is, then who will?

Well it turns out NASA may yet survive another man-made disaster - that is the US Congress - but only with the help of a natural disaster.



So back in February, a meteorite exploded over Russia injuring thousands of people and causing millions of dollars in damage. 

Well, in the wake of new concern that what happened to the dinosaurs could happen to us, Congress held a hearing this week on just such a threat.

On Wednesday, the House-Based Sub-Committee heard testimony from NASA scientists about the need for funding missions to track and study so called 'Near Earth Objects'. Especially the potentially dangerous ones. 


And on the very same day, President Obama submitted his 2014 Budget Request to Congress which included $100 million dollars for a NASA mission to capture an asteroid. You heard that correctly.... capture an asteroid.

Obama originally wanted to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 which was beginning to look very unlikely, but NASA now thinks the deadline can be met with a new plan. Instead of sending astronauts to an asteroid, they want to bring the asteroid to us by capturing it and moving it into a Cislunar Orbit - that is an orbit between the Earth and the Moon. 

NASA's plan could actually bump the original date up by 4 years launching the 'asteroid capturing craft' by 2017 and sending astronauts to visit as soon as 2021.


The idea for the mission was first proposed last year by the Keck Institute for Space Studies by the California Institute of Technology.

An Atlas V rocket would launch a robotic space craft with the 'Solar Electric Propulsion System' towards a 7 meter wide Carbonaceous asteroid. The craft would then basically stuff the asteroid into a big bag and then carry it to orbit between the Earth and the Moon. But, its code-named 'Santa Claus'.... its not actually code-named 'Santa Claus'. Seriously... stuffing it in a bag.

Once its there, an Orion crew vehicle would send astronauts to the rock, going beyond Low-Earth Orbit for the first time since the Apollo Moon Landing in 1972.

The Keck Institute says NASA would ultimately need about $2.6 billion for the robotic capture phase and billions more for the human mission. Meanwhile, there's the search for Mr. Right... Asteroid.


NASA already has an asteroid mission on the calendar - the robotic probe Osiris Rex planned for launch in 2016 - which will be the first to collect samples from an asteroid and return them to Earth. But for the new mission, NASA's looking for just the right rock - one that's small enough to be caught and in the right orbit to be in the Earth's vicinity at the time of the mission. And according to the Keck team, the asteroid would also have to be the density of "a dried mud ball" instead of a denser, rockier object that might pose a threat to Earth. 

So of the $100 million requested by President Obama, $27 million would be for finding the right rock. NASA hopes to confirm the project's feasibility as soon as this summer [2013]. 

If successful the mission would bring lots of technological benefits before people even got to the rock. Simply developing this historic mission would advance our ability to detect asteroids and build robotic space craft. And, building the deep space human exploration capsule Orion would be a step towards a future Mars mission.

And then there's what we'd learn by tinkering with the Space rock itself! Crews visiting the captured asteroid would be able to experiment with extracting water, Oxygen, Metals and Silicon - resources that would be useful, maybe down right vital to future astronauts on long journeys. As well as to private companies you've heard me talk about with plans to mine asteroids for water and metals. And of course this whole exercise could help us develop a plan to move an asteroid off a collision course with Earth.

So thank you Russian meteorite for taking the object at rest - that is the US Congress - and putting it in motion.


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