NASA's asteroid mission could represent a new milestone in humanity's presence in and influence on the Solar System. For the first time in history, we would capture an entire object in orbit around the Sun and move it to a place of our choosing. We would evolve from mere observers of the motions of the heavens to participants in determining them.
The Planetary Society conditionally supports NASA's plan to capture a small asteroid and place it in lunar orbit. In the best case, the mission spurs investment in technologies crucial to solar system exploration, such as very large solar-electric propulsion systems and automated deep-space operations, and in enhanced and expanded ways to detect and monitor asteroids.
"It's an intriguing idea. We are very glad that NASA has proposed to double the asteroid detection budget. That doubling could help us identify blocks of ice and rock that cross the Earth's orbit," said Planetary Society CEO, Bill Nye.
Our support is conditional, however, because The Planetary Society is concerned that the detailed goals, costs, and implementation plan for this asteroid mission are not yet well defined. In order for this mission to succeed, the Administration must plan for, and Congress must provide, long-term funding to pursue it in a timely manner without raiding funds from high-priority scientific programs within NASA.
The asteroid mission could fuse human and robotic spaceflight, drawing on the unique capabilities of both to address important scientific questions as well as challenges in celestial navigation and small body capture. Once the asteroid is moved into lunar orbit, astronaut crews would be able to survey and sample some of the most primitive materials in our Solar System.
"Although not billed as a science-driven mission, this has the potential to bring the human and robotic space exploration communities together toward common goals," said Planetary Society President and Arizona State University planetary scientist Jim Bell. "But we need more details about how it will work, what it will cost, and what the specific roles of the various science and exploration communities would be in such a daring adventure."
If a technologically-achievable, scientifically-valuable mission emerges in the coming months, and if appropriate levels of new long-term funding are provided to implement it, then capturing an asteroid and investigating it in detail could end up being a mission that truly exemplifies the spirit of adventure and bold thinking that is unique to the space program. The Planetary Society looks forward to learning more about this exciting new milestone in exploring the cosmos.