NASA received 402 ideas for finding asteroids that may be on a collision course with Earth and for relocating a small asteroid into an orbit around the moon for future study.
The proposals were offered in response to a June 18 solicitation intended to reach beyond the established aerospace industry for partnerships on two planned asteroid exploration initiatives.
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The first project, which NASA is calling a "Grand Challenge," is to find all potentially dangerous asteroids in orbits that come close to Earth.
The agency already has found about 95 percent of the near-Earth asteroids 0.62 miles (1 km) or larger in diameter. Objects of this size are on par with the asteroid or comet that crashed into Earth about 65 million years ago, triggering a global climate change that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs and most other life on the planet.
Finding smaller, but still potentially dangerous asteroids is a much more difficult undertaking. Asteroids the size of the one that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, on Feb. 15, 2013, strike Earth about once every 100 years.
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"There are potentially about 1 million smaller, threatening asteroids out there and we don't know where they are," Jason Kessler, who oversees NASA's Asteroid Grand Challenge Program, said at a webcast Space Frontier Foundation conference in San Jose, Calif., this week.
"We have the ability to truly change our fate. There are not many things that we can actually say that about," Kessler added.
About one-third of the proposals NASA received are focused on finding potentially dangerous asteroids. The rest address a related NASA initiative to send a robotic probe to capture and relocate a small asteroid into an orbit around the moon. U.S. astronauts would then visit the asteroid on a follow-on mission.
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"Those responses are amazing," said NASA's associate administrator Bill Gerstenmaier. "There are some really creative thoughts."
Congress has not yet decided whether to fund the Obama Administration's request for $105 million for NASA to get started on the asteroid rendezvous mission. The project is part of the agency's $17.7 billion budget request for the 2014 fiscal year beginning on Oct. 1. Proposed House and Senate funding bills are more than $1 billion apart.
NASA plans a public meeting in Houston Sept. 30 – Oct. 2 to discuss the asteroid proposals.
"The idea is to bring together as many people as we can and co-create an implementation plan with our partners. We don't even know who they are yet in a lot of ways," Kessler said.
"This is something that NASA can't do on its own," he added.
Image: a graphic from NASA's proposed asteroid retrieval mission. Credit: NASA