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NASA Seeks Private-Sector Posse to Hunt Asteroids

Bruce Willis in the 1998 asteroid film “Armageddon”

Photograph by Everett Collection

Bruce Willis in the 1998 asteroid film “Armageddon”

Forget sentient glasses and self-driving cars, “asteroid transportation” may be the hottest thing in engineering.

NASA summoned captains of industry to Washington this morning to pitch its plan to harness earthbound asteroids with spacecraft. The briefing, along with a request for information from potential private-sector partners, is part of the government’s “enhanced focus on planetary defense.” In other words, the government needs help saving the world. NASA hopes to be able to snare a small asteroid by 2025. In addition to an Armageddon-style rendezvous, the agency aims to double its capacity to spot potentially hazardous objects zipping through space, or in NASA terminology: “near-earth objects.”

At any given time there are several dozen asteroids and comets for which “future earth impact cannot be ruled out,” according to the space agency. (To induce a light existential crisis, feel free to check the agency’s list of rogue space rocks.) “The average person is oblivious to the threat,” NASA chief Charles Bolden told Bloomberg News today. “Unlike other natural disasters, we can avert this. It allows us to avoid becoming like the dinosaurs.”

NASA already has its eyes on three asteroids—each about 10 meters wide—that are likely candidates for redirection. In theory, NASA and its private-sector partners would use solar-powered spacecraft to drag the asteroids away from earth and into orbit with the moon. Saving the planet aside, there’s also some money in it for potential partners. Of NASA’s $18 billion proposed budget for 2014, it hopes to set aside $105 million for asteroid goaltending.

NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown said today’s meeting was “packed.” Even though the space agency says it didn’t have a sign-in sheet to collect names at today’s event, several private-sector companies are already working on relevant space products, often in concert with NASA. Here’s a look:

B612 Foundation: A Silicon Valley-based nonprofit planning to launch a space telescope by July 2018 to find and track threatening asteroids.

Blue Origin: A Washington-based company focused on building reusable rockets and spacecraft designed to both take off and land vertically.

Boeing (BA): The aeronautics giant already has an agreement to help NASA with commercial space flight, and its Houston-based space exploration unit has more than 3,000 employees.

Google (GOOG): The tech giant, led by known space enthusiasts, has its engineers mapping planets and is offering $20 million to any group that can land a robot on the moon.

Moon Express: A Bay Area aerospace startup that designs lunar landers in hopes of one day mining the moon.

Planetary Resources: A startup backed by Google founders that hopes to mine asteroids for precious metals.

Paragon Space Development: A Tucson (Ariz.)-based company that works on NASA life-support systems.

Sierra Nevada: A Nevada-based NASA partner specializing in high-tech manufacturing and electronics.

Space Exploration Technologies: Founded by Tesla Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk, SpaceX is already shooting supplies to the International Space Station.

Virgin Galactic: Richard Branson’s space tourism company, which is already selling

for $250,000 a seat.

Stock is an associate editor for Twitter: @kylestock

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