New Space Cowboys: Wranglers Take Aim At Asteroids
Tuesday, March 5th, 2013
by AJ Plunkett
Will asteroid wranglers be the next space cowboys? Probably.
Will it be easy? Absolutely not. Traveling and working in space has never been for the feint of heart or weak of stomach. Only the most fit make the cut.
Is travelling to space romantic? Sure. The idea of space travel always has been. So have cowboys.
And if you’re wondering whether travelling to space to deal with asteroids is necessary, just take another look at the footage of that asteroid exploding over Russia.
What remains to be seen is whether it’s lucrative.
That asteroid that self-destructed over Russia on Feb. 15 created a sonic shockwave that shattered windows and injured hundreds, and also provoked a worldwide debate about asteroids and how Earth can save itself from potential doom.
Barely a month before the blast, the European Space Agency (ESA) issued a call for research ideas “to guide a U.S.-European asteroid deflection mission now under study.”
ESA says it wants to map the interests of different communities to champion its AIDA project, the Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment.
AIDA is actually two projects. The first would test if it’s possible to deflect an asteroid by hitting it really hard — in this case, with a specially designed spacecraft that would act as an “asteroid kinetic impactor.” The second project would construct a spacecraft to monitor what happens after the first spacecraft makes impact.
Several organizations are involved, including the Johns Hopkins Physics Laboratory, several NASA centers, the ESA’s Asteroid Impact Monitoring Group, the German Aerospace Centre and the Observatoire de la Côte d’Azure.
With the call for research ideas, the ESA wants to measure how certain science and research communities — like those interested in asteroid risk assessment, hypervelocity impacts and debris, and detector technology — might be able to contribute.
The question is: What kind of money is out there to pay for any or all of these ideas? While there might be a lot of interest, the reality is that there’s not a lot of government funding available. A look at the proposed space budgets for NASA, Canada, and other countries is evidence of that.
But there always seems to be money when there’s a promise of making more of it. And at least two companies, Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources, have both put forward the idea that the same technology that can be used to mine minerals off asteroids may also be useful in deflecting them when they threaten Earth.
So, while it will be interesting to see the science proposals brought out by ESA’s call for ideas — submissions are being accepted through March 15 — it will be just as interesting to see the response to Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources.
Call it space geeks vs. space cowboys: who will wrangle the job in the end?
AJ Plunkett is a freelance writer in Virginia with experience in covering defense and aerospace industries, as well as health care issues. AJ blogs via Contently.com