NASA 'Asteroid Lasso' Mission Finds Few Fans In Congress; Other Funding Gets Boost [VIDEO]

By Ben Wolford on May 10, 2014 4:12 PM EDT

NASA's Orion spacecraft would carry two astronauts to a captured asteroid if funding is approved. (Photo: NASA)

NASA's Orion spacecraft would carry two astronauts to a captured asteroid if funding is approved. (Photo: NASA)

On Friday, two astronauts at Johnson Space Center were practicing an asteroid spacewalk in a swimming pool 40 feet deep. They wore bright orange spacesuits and simulated work with a mock Orion spacecraft — the ferry that would bring human beings to a captured asteroid in lunar orbit. No one has ever seen an asteroid up close before.

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But just one day earlier, members of Congress expressed grave doubts about the asteroid mission, one of NASA's most ambitious and publicized in years. While recommending an overall funding boost to the space agency for planetary exploration, the House Appropriations Committee said the so-called "asteroid lasso" mission has questionable "strategic relevance." The committe wrote that "funding associated with the mission must be carefully constrained."

The Asteroid Redirect Mission proposes locating a small asteroid in orbit around the sun, capturing it with a spacecraft, and pulling it into orbit around the moon. From there, a spacecraft called Orion would shuttle two astronauts to the asteroid to examine it up close. NASA hopes the technology and experience of visiting an asteroid will help the agency achieve its ultimate goal of sending humans to Mars by the 2030s. The lasso part of the mission is estimated to cost $1.25 billion.

NASA astronauts simulated what it would be like to work on an asteroid in a swimming pool at Johnson Space Center in Houston. (Photo: NASA)
NASA astronauts simulated what it would be like to work on an asteroid in a swimming pool at Johnson Space Center in Houston. (Photo: NASA)

Congress, however, appears skeptical. Members of the appropriations committee want to give the space agency $17.9 billion in 2015, which is $435 million more than the White House asked for. One priority is launching a rover to Europa, a frozen moon of Jupiter that could support life. "This is really great news for [the Jet Propulsion Laboratory], but more broadly, great news for those who want America to maintain its preeminence in planetary science," U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., told the The Los Angeles Times.

Yet, it's unclear what the committee's directives will mean for the asteroid mission. "NASA may only expend funds on those portions of the ARM mission that are also applicable" to current programs or that are "clearly extensible" to a Mars mission, the committee wrote. And there was no mention of near-Earth objects — undetected asteroids or comets that could collide with Earth. Most governmental efforts to locate these objects have stalled.

Nonetheless, the exercises on Friday marked tangible progress toward a human rendezvous with an asteroid. NASA reported that the two astronauts, Stan Love and Steve Bowen, were experimenting with tools that will be used to obtain core samples of the asteroid's layers. There are some things they won't be able to replicate on Earth, however. There are extremely basic unknowns.

"The biggest unknown for going out and doing a spacewalk on a captured asteroid is what the asteroid is going to be like," Love told a NASA interviewer. "The small asteroids that we could go and get with a robot ship are tiny. They're, you know, a few yards across. And even in the world's finest telescopes, they're a dot. So you may not know till you get there whether you're dealing with a pile of sooty gravel that's loosely held together by its own weak self-gravity, or it could be a solid chunk of nickel-iron."

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