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NASA has been thinking about asteroids a lot lately, from pledging to spot every near-Earth object large enough to damage human civilization to planning to capture an asteroid and drag it into the moon’s orbit, where it could then circle for up to 100 years. The missions have varied goals, from protecting the Earth from destruction to improving technology that could put humans on Mars to inspiring Congress to give the agency more money.
NASA put out a call in June for ideas for the initiatives to catch an asteroid and spot others near Earth, and by July it had received 400 submissions. Wednesday, it released abstracts for the 96 ideas it will consider further at a conference in late September.
There are robots, lasers and plans for crowdsourcing research. Here are a few of the highlights.
Hit a big asteroid with a small asteroid
A major goal of the NASA asteroid redirect mission is to convince Earthlings that the agency can protect them from potentially fatal asteroids barreling toward Earth. If NASA practices redirecting an asteroid now, it will know how to do it when the stakes are higher. But what if an asteroid is so big that a spacecraft could not capture and redirect it?
Iowa State University aerospace engineering professor Bong Wie has a possible solution. He suggested a study that would explore hitting a large asteroid with a smaller one that NASA can actually manage, causing the large asteroid to veer off course and miss Earth.
Divert an asteroid with a swarm of spacecraft
A less violent solution would be to release a group of satellite vehicles that would attach to spots all over the surface of an approaching asteroid. Scott Sevcik of Prospect Dynamics suggested that then they could all thrust in one direction, diverting the path of the asteroid.
Let citizens spot asteroids
There is a whole section of proposals devoted to developing online tools for citizens to help spot near-Earth objects. While capturing an asteroid will help scientists understand how to deflect them from hitting the Earth, they still have to spot them first. There are already online communities teeming with amateur tracking objects like comets, so it would be fairly easy to provide them additional tools to track asteroids.
Commercialize the asteroid mission
Private companies are expected to play a big role in developing the technology to send people to deep space. If NASA hires them to take care of part of the asteroid mission, it will allow them to develop their technology earlier than expected while cutting costs for the government.