Congress looks to kill NASA's plan to capture an asteroid

GOP budget plan nixes asteroid mission but backs moon, Mars trips

House Republican leaders are shooting to get astronauts on the moon and Mars, but they're trying to nix the president's asteroid plans.

In April, NASA announced that President Barack Obama's Fiscal Year 2014 budget request for NASA included funding to keep NASA on track to launch astronauts into space from U.S. soil by 2017. The budget also fully funds the building of a heavy-lift rocket and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle to carry astronauts into deep space.

For the first time, the $17.7 billion budget, which is flat compared to recent years, also included funding for a plan to capture and redirect an asteroid into orbit around Earth so astronauts can study it.

House Republicans have other ideas, though.

"Another request in the president's budget was an Asteroid Retrieval Mission or ARM," the GOP version of the NASA authorization bill ( download PDF) reads. "While the committee supports the administration's efforts to study Near Earth Objects, this proposal lacks in details, a justification or support from [NASA's] own advisory bodies. Because the mission appears to be a costly and complex distraction, this bill prohibits NASA from doing any work on the project and we will work with appropriators to ensure the agency complies with this directive."

The GOP budget plan does back the administration's plan to put more than $1.77 billion into building a space launch system and $1.2 billion into building a new Orion crew capsule -- all in an effort to launch astronauts from American soil again by 2017.

"The bill includes several accountability measures and a flight readiness deadline of December 31, 2017," noted the GOP plan. "This deadline is not negotiable. NASA must do whatever is necessary in its acquisition model to meet this deadline, even if that means radically altering their current plans."

The GOP plan also backed the president's plan to fund the International Space Station with more than $2.9 billion.

However, NASA's plan to capture an asteroid and move it into Earth's orbit may be one of the space agency's more attention-grabbing missions. And it may be grabbing more attention because an asteroid entered Earth's atmosphere on Feb. 15, creating a fireball that streaked across the sky, releasing a high burst of energy and showering an area around Chelyabinsk, Russia, with meteorites.

NASA's plan includes finding a near-Earth asteroid that weighs about 500 tons but may be only 25 or 30 feet long. NASA did not say how soon this could be done, but said it would keep the agency within reach of its goal to visit an asteroid by 2025.

"This mission represents an unprecedented technological feat that will lead to new scientific discoveries and technological capabilities and help protect our home planet," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden this past April. "We will use existing capabilities, such as the Orion crew capsule and Space Launch System rocket, and develop new technologies like solar electric propulsion and laser communications -- all critical components of deep space exploration."

Bolden also said this spring that NASA's plans, including the asteroid mission, as well as rocket and robotic development, will help to create jobs for the next generation of scientists and engineers.

The space agency also plans on sending a robotic spacecraft to a nearby asteroid to collect pieces of the asteroid and return them to Earth for study. NASA scientists are hoping the $800 million mission will help them discover how life began on Earth.

Expected to launch in 2016, the spacecraft is scheduled to reach the asteroid -- dubbed 1999 RQ36 -- by 2020 and then return to Earth in 2023.

It's unclear whether the GOP's version of NASA's budget would affect this asteroid collection mission.

This article, Congress looks to kill NASA's plan to capture an asteroid, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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This story, "Congress looks to kill NASA's plan to capture an asteroid" was originally published by Computerworld.

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