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NASA Courts Industry to Put 500-Ton Asteroid in Moon’s Orbit

While most large asteroids that could trigger a global catastrophe have been found and tracked, smaller space objects remain a threat. Photographer: Babek Tafreshi/SSPL via Getty Images
While most large asteroids that could trigger a global catastrophe have been found and tracked, smaller space objects remain a threat. Photographer: Babek Tafreshi/SSPL via Getty Images

June 18 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. space agency is counting on private investors to help invent and manufacture new technologies to protect the Earth from stray asteroids.

Industry executives will be briefed today in Washington about the planned 2025 mission to drag a giant space rock into orbit around the moon, in a test of whether asteroids can be steered clear of earth, National Aeronautics and Space Administration chief Charles Bolden told reporters today in Vienna during a visit to the United Nations space agency.

“The technology isn’t developed yet,” Bolden said. “The things we’re trying to do are global issues bigger than any one nation can or should undertake.”

While most large asteroids that could trigger a global catastrophe have been found and tracked, smaller space objects remain a threat. A Feb. 15 meteor blast over Russia blew out windows and injured 1,200 people in Chelyabinsk. The unforeseen event reignited debate over defending again space threats.

“The average person is oblivious to the threat,” Bolden said. “Unlike other natural disasters, we can avert this. It allows us to avoid becoming like the dinosaurs.”

A 10-kilometer-wide asteroid is said to have caused the extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years ago when it struck off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula.

NASA has already identified three potential asteroids measuring as much as 10 meters (33 feet) in diameter that could be targeted by the mission, Bolden said. Astronauts could need as long as 18 months to drag the object into the moon’s orbit. Its 500 metric-ton weight would compare to the 560 metric-ton maximum takeoff weight of an Airbus A380 superjumbo.

An asteroid on a collision course could possibly be deflected with a spacecraft, redirected with a “gravity tractor” hovering nearby or, as a last resort, targeted with a nuclear explosion. Bolden declined to speculate which redirection technologies would be used on the mission.

Placing an asteroid in orbit around the moon will also create legal and diplomatic challenges here on Earth, Bolden said. NASA is consulting with the UN and allies to discuss asteroid rights of use and ownership when it reaches orbit.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan Tirone in Vienna at jtirone@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Hertling at jhertling@bloomberg.net

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