Faced with congressional recalcitrance over its plan to capture a small asteroid and nudge it into lunar orbit for hands-on study, NASA is emphasizing the link between finding a target and cataloging near-Earth objects (NEOs) that could devastate the planet if they hit.

As a bonus, top agency managers say the mission could advance human-exploration capabilities even it does not catch a space rock. The first flight of the Orion capsule with a crew on board will be to the high retrograde lunar orbit planned for a captured asteroid, they say, because of the lessons it can teach or future missions deeper into the Solar System.

“Even if there isn't an asteroid there, there are certainly opportunities to test all the systems that we've got,” says Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot. “There are all sorts of things that we are going to test for the first time.”

Lightfoot, Deputy Administrator Lori Garver and the agency's top four mission directors briefed industry on the asteroid-capture plan June 18, announcing a broad-brush “grand challenge” to “find all asteroid threats to human populations and know what to do about them.”

Central to that effort is a request for information (RFI) released during the industry workshop seeking ideas from any source in the U.S. and abroad that could help detect NEOs that might hit Earth some day, and help develop the asteroid-capture mission included in the agency's fiscal 2014 budget request (AW&ST April 29, p. 36) as a step toward avoiding a collision.

The RFI seeks suggestions in six areas—observing asteroids from the ground and space; concepts for “redirecting” asteroids weighing as much as 1,000 tons into translunar space; demonstrating ways to deflect asteroids large enough to do significant damage to Earth in a collision; systems for capturing a small asteroid; crew systems for exploring an asteroid, including suits and translation aids such as the Russian Strela boom used on the International Space Station (ISS) (see illustration); and partnerships for accomplishing the work.

NASA is interested in ideas and concepts for potential partnerships to support both aspects of the Asteroid Initiative: enhancements to planetary defense activities and the Asteroid Redirect Mission,” the RFI states.

Responses to that RFI, due July 18, will be factored into the agency's asteroid-capture mission formulation later that month, which ultimately will feed the fiscal 2015 NASA budget request, Lightfoot says. But that presumes Congress will fund the mission in the budget request currently under review, which carries a $105-million line item to get the asteroid-capture mission off the ground.

Included in that figure is an extra $20 million for the agency's ongoing effort to spot potentially dangerous asteroids. That account already was funded at $20 million, and doubling it could boost improvements to the Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System for full-sky surveys, and perhaps allow a restart of the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (Wise) spacecraft, which ran out of hydrogen coolant in 2010 but has some residual capability to locate NEOs.

Increased emphasis on finding and cataloging threatening NEOs plays into the agenda advanced by the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, which has held two hearings on the asteroid threat. But in the first draft of its NASA reauthorization bill, the panel's Republican leadership included language forbidding NASA from spending any money to capture an asteroid and it vows to work with GOP appropriators to kill the mission. Instead, they call for a return to the lunar surface as part of a comprehensive plan to land humans on Mars.

William Gerstenmaier, the associate administrator for human exploration and operations, says an asteroid-capture mission is probably the best NASA can afford at current funding levels to advance human space travel beyond the ISS. Like Lightfoot, he sees the deep retrograde lunar orbit as a place where systems on Orion and the heavy-lift Space Launch System can be flight-tested in the kind of environment they would face on trips to more distant destinations, including main-belt asteroids and Mars. High-power Hall thrusters and other advanced in-space propulsion systems already in development would also get a technology “pull” from an asteroid mission, and the scientific haul from a primordial piece of the Solar System would be invaluable. That synergy among existing NASA efforts, and with the congressional desire to protect Earth from asteroid impacts, may help boost the chances the program ultimately will win funding on Capitol Hill, says Garver.

“I think aligning the mission better with the protecting-the-planet aspects of it could be beneficial, but we understand that they have a difference of opinion on the next human destination,” she says. “I think what will help us the most is being able to explain. . . how great the alignment of this is with what we are currently doing, and the very small investment it would take to have an asteroid be there at the same time that we would be going there anyway.”