NASA budget includes plan to capture and redirect asteroid into Earth orbit

Project may gains momentum after February asteroid incident in Russia

NASA's proposed $17.7 billion budget includes plans to capture and redirect an asteroid into orbit around Earth so astronauts can study it.

Ultimately, the project looks to learn more about the makeup of asteroids in an attempt to protect the Earth from devastating collisions.

"Today, we unveil President Obama's Fiscal Year 2014 budget ( PDF version ) request for NASA -- a $17.7 billion investment in our nation's future," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said today. "Our budget ensures the United States will remain the world's leader in space exploration and scientific discovery for years to come, while making critical advances in aerospace and aeronautics to benefit the American people."

The plan may get more attention, and possibly more congressional approval, because of an asteroid that 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.

The budget, which is flat compared to recent years, also includes 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.

Orion is scheduled for an unmanned test flight in 2014, and a test of the rocket in 2017.

NASA noted that any reduction to the proposed level of funding for the Commercial Crew program would result in a delay in launching Americans from U.S. borders, and would force the space agency to continue paying million of dollars to the Russians to carry NASA astronauts into space.

NASA's 2014 budget proposal also includes continued funding for the International Space Station, and the continued operation of rovers and orbiters working on Mars, as well as planned future missions, such as a scheduled 2016 mission, called Insight, to examine why the Red Planet evolved so differently from Earth.

NASA also is funding its continued work on the James Webb Space Telescope, which the space agency calls the next great observatory. With a planned launch in 2018, the telescope is geared to be the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, searching for the first galaxies that formed in the early universe and hopefully giving scientists information about the Big Bang and the Milky Way.

However, the plans to capture an asteroid and move it into Earth's orbit may be one of NASA's more attention-grabbing missions.

The 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," Bolden said. "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."

He also said NASA's plans, including the asteroid mission, rocket and robotic development, will help to create jobs for the next generation of scientists and engineers.

"NASA's ground-breaking science missions are reaching farther into our solar system, revealing unknown aspects of our universe and providing critical data about our home planet and threats to it," Bolden said. "Spacecraft are speeding to Jupiter, Pluto and Ceres while satellites peer into other galaxies, spot planets around other stars, and uncover the origins of the universe."

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.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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