President Barack Obama is pushing NASA to the next frontier: asteroid hunting.
The Obama administration will reportedly request $105 million for a NASA-led mission to capture an asteroid and place it in orbit around the moon. The request was made public during a congressional briefing last week, according to officials, in which the administration put forth its proposal as part of its broader 2014 budget.
According to reports, NASA will use the funding to capture an asteroid as soon as 2017, tug it into orbit around the moon, and send astronauts to study the surface and subsurface composition. NASA has suggested the mission could focus on identifying a 500-ton, 25-foot asteroid by 2017 and having it in orbit by 2019. Astronauts would then travel to the asteroid in 2021 via Constellation rocket, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.
The request, part of the president’s 2014 budget plan set for release later this month, includes $78 million for developing the necessary technology. The remaining funds would be used for discovering the asteroid. The mission would likely draw resources and expertise from similar projects already underway at NASA. The space agency has already expressed interest in a mission that would allow scientists to collect data on nearby asteroids.
The budget proposal was made public after Florida U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat, announced plans to pursue an additional $100 million in funding for the space agency. Nelson, chairman of the Senate science and space subcommittee, has long advocated for increased funding for the U.S. space program, which remains a large presence in the state of Florida.
Speaking Friday, Nelson said the mission could ultimately provide NASA with the data and experience necessary to nudge a deadly incoming asteroid out of the way, if necessary. The Florida senator also noted that the mission would provide the space agency with an important testing grounds for a mission to Mars.
“It really is a clever concept,” said Nelson said in a press conference. “Go find your ideal candidate for an asteroid. Go get it robotically and bring it back.”
While the proposed plan has a number of hurdles, experts say it would likely present scientists with an unprecedented opportunity. NASA experts say an asteroid of just 25 feet would not pose a threat to Earth, as it would burn up in the atmosphere in the event the mission took a turn for the worse. Still, some critics have questioned the president’s decision to focus on exploring asteroids, which they contend will draw essential resources from current NASA missions. Some experts have suggested that the administration should work to build and fund the existing space agency infrastructure in an attempt to launch a manned mission to Mars by 2030.
The request comes as a number of private space companies have put forth plans that would include dragging asteroids into orbit around the moon. Private space companies have put forth ambitious proposals that include capturing an asteroid, placing it in orbit, and mining the material in order to turn a profit.