Asteroid dreams, Part 1: detect, deflect…exploit?

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Recent news and events have had me thinking a lot lately about near-Earth objects (NEOS). (Disclosure: I do communication research for NASA’s NEO Program. I have to pay attention.) This post is Part 1 of a three-part post on my thinking.

Last year, the Obama administration proposed to send humans to an asteroid. Hard-core human spaceflight advocates are wildly enthusiastic about this idea. Others, not so much (see below). Meanwhile, one group at NASA claims to have identified a number of “human-accessible” asteroids, while others say, well, not quite yet…. This year, the administration has proposed an asteroid retrieval mission (ARM) as part of a three-part strategy to “identify” more NEOs (by expanding NASA’s NEO observation program), “redirect” by developing options for deflecting NEOs on a collision course with Earth, and “explore” by initiating a mission to capture an asteroid and drag it back to the vicinity of the Moon for human exploration. (For a description of this strategy, see this NASA presentation.)

Last summer, the B612 Foundation proposed to save the world from asteroid impacts by raising private funding to build a space-based NEO detection and tracking telescope. No word yet from B612 on exactly how much it will cost to build, launch, and operate Sentinel and, perhaps more importantly, how much funding it has amassed thus far.

Also last summer, the start-up company Planetary Resources announced its plans for corporate mining of asteroids “for the benefit of humanity.”  I must note that, no matter what they say their “missions” are, corporations exist to make money. Period. Any benefits to humanity from mining operations are to the select few who profit from them. Last week Planetary Resources initiated a crowd-funding campaign to raise $1 million to build a small-scale space telescope “for the people.” As of today, the company says it’s raised $750,000. (Last summer, by the way, another outfit announced that it had initiated a “Crowdfund NASA” project.)

Media coverage of these various and sundry proposals has been breathless and extensive, as I’ve noted before. I’ve seen little critical analysis, though not everybody buys the claims without raising an eyebrow (or two). See, for instance, long-time Time magazine reporter Jeff Kluger’s take on asteroid mining. I myself don’t expect much to come of these proposals – except for maybe “The People’s Telescope,” as its size and scope are very small – though even $1 million will likely not cover the cost of building, launching, and operating it.

Meanwhile, on May 31 the White House hosted a “We the Geeks” Google+ hangout on asteroids that featured a line-up of like-minded advocates for exploring and exploiting NEOs. See my next blog post for more information on that event….

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