For Asteroid Ideas, NASA Looks to the Crowd
IRA FLATOW, HOST:
This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. You've seen the movies: A killer asteroid approaching the earth. Cue the dramatic music. Hollywood heroes - James Garner's my favorite - to save the day. But in order to stop an asteroid, first you need to be able to find it, track it, and maybe even know a bit more about asteroids, so you have a better chance of dealing with it successfully.
It's like in the movies: You need to rehearse the whole thing, right? Well, earlier this summer, NASA put out an RFI, a request for information, looking for ideas from the public, universities, companies, anyone on ideas that would help better identify and track asteroids, and even suggest ways of catching one and moving it into a stable orbit to study it.
Lots of folks responded. NASA received over 400 ideas. Lori Garver, the deputy administrator for NASA, second-in-command there, she joins us from NASA HQ in Washington. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
LORI GARVER: Thanks, Ira. Great to be here.
FLATOW: So were you surprised with all the response that you got?
GARVER: I wasn't surprised. I have felt like this grand challenge that we've laid out to capture an asteroid, to be able to find - first of all, as you noted - any asteroid threats to the earth and then know what to do about them, is something the public does care about. And so those 400 responses that you mentioned, almost 40 percent were, in fact, just by even individuals.
FLATOW: Now, can you give us an idea of the range of responses? What were some typical ideas?
GARVER: Sure. So we asked for responses in a couple of categories, including observations, deflection, redirection and capture, and even for us to have astronauts go out to explore the asteroid and bring a sample back. Majority of responses were in observation, partnering with other countries, citizen science, crowd-sourcing, people can go and help us track these asteroids.
But some of the really unique ones were in capture. I think everything from harpoons to nets, robotic manipulators for grappling, swarms of smaller micro-craft that might go out and observe these and be able to tell us more about them in advance of astronauts going. One of the issues with asteroids is they are spinning. And a great idea was to be able to put in, onto the asteroid, some arms. So if you picture an ice skater, as you extend those arms, it slows the spin of the asteroid...
GARVER: ...like it slows the skater.
FLATOW: High concept.
GARVER: That is one of my favorites. Yes.
FLATOW: Wow. 1-800-989-8255 if you've got some other interesting ideas for tracking and capturing the asteroid. I saw that on NASA's page that there was an idea, maybe even NASA's own, for putting sort of a baggy around it, and catch it. Yes.
GARVER: Yes. Yes, so the jet propulsion laboratory actually had a study over the last couple of years, which has focused in on putting this large sack around a smaller asteroid and being able to move it to where we could have astronauts visit it. And that is sort of what we call our reference mission. And so a lot of these public ideas are things that either could improve on that, or doing things in a different way.
And it's, you know, it shows government employees and contractors don't have the corner on the market on great ideas, and we know that throughout history, citizen science has been well-utilized. And so at NASA, we're trying to take advantage of this new technology that's allowed us to observe greater and greater number of asteroids, and putting that technology in more people's hands.
FLATOW: So you could, if you capture it, you could move it into a spot where it's not moving relative to the Earth and the moon, perhaps?
FLATOW: It's sitting there?
GARVER: So what we are anticipating for our asteroid mission would be to first identify and then launch a solar electric propulsion robotic spacecraft to the asteroid that could then capture it and tow it to translunar space, which is the space probably at the libration point where we have the gravitational forces of the Earth and the moon balanced, so it's in a stable orbit.
At that point, astronauts would be going up - as we are developing the space launch system and the Orion spacecraft - to visit it in the early 2020s and be able to go take a large sample of the asteroid back to Earth, so we can understand what they're made of. That's a science interest. The very origins of, you know, life are captured in some of these types of asteroids and comets, as well as developing them as a resource for future space exploration.
And we know that this is, for us, a waypoint to test out NASA's systems that we're developing to go on to Mars.
FLATOW: Of course, you need money to do all those stuff, and if I understand it, when this idea was presented to Congress, who has the purse strings, they were - the House was not very happy about this idea, to put it mildly.
GARVER: Well, there are parts of it, I think, are very popular. In fact, the House Science Committee, of this committee's first three hearings, I think two were focused on the importance of observing more and tracking more of these threatening asteroids to Earth. And, of course, we had the hit in Russia, in Chelyabinsk, in February, and there's been a lot of attention to this.
So NASA was given the charge to detect 90 percent of the large asteroids a kilometer or larger, and we've already met that and detected more than 95 percent of them. We have increased our budget from just a couple of million dollars at the beginning of the Obama administration to $20 million today, and we are asking for $40 million for next year. And I don't think that is at all controversial, bipartisan support for doing that aspect of this.
GARVER: So a big part of this grand challenge is to find those threats and know what to do about them. The part that has not been well received by Republicans and Congress has been, as a destination, sending the astronauts on one of their first SOS Orion missions to this asteroid that we would have moved. And they would prefer we go back to the moon.
And our argument is that we, first of all, are building these capabilities for tens of billions of dollars, and we believe for $1 to $2 billion, can do something very useful with those early missions, and that they would be visiting an asteroid. Going to the moon costs tens of billions more, and you're building landers and so forth, and it is not something we have the resources to do now.
So we really believe this is leveraged program that would, in the $1 to $2 billion range, be able to have an unbelievably exciting mission for astronauts, and we're already going there. Now, the Senate supports this. The House Democrats support it. We know that a lot of this is pretty partisan at this point, but we strongly believe that this is a really exciting area where we think the public has responded with these 400-some responses in a way that shows there is a lot of interest in asteroids.
FLATOW: So how do you decide the winner, or what you would choose to do from these 400, or your own responses?
GARVER: So I mentioned we had these five areas. We have teams within each of the five areas who are going through all of the submissions and are starting to highlight those that really make a lot of sense and share those with the folks responsible for those areas. So, for instance, in asteroid observation, that's our science mission directorate. And we already have an observation program, and so the best ideas will be going forward.
Either we will put out this was RFI - you mentioned RFPs, request for proposal. So there will be actual dollars then directed towards some of this. But even in order to focus the RFP, we needed to get these broad ideas.
FLATOW: Is there any new technology that has to be invented, or do you really know how to do it? Just as a question of choosing which way to go?
GARVER: I think there are technologies today that will be used in innovative ways, right? So innovation is where different types of technologies and science come together. And what we're seeing in these is a lot of innovation. Now, we know we're driving the technology of solar electric propulsion, for instance.
We know, at this point, we've been working on this for quite a while and accelerating that development is what's going to help us get out there to the asteroid. But we looked for additional ideas, and there are some of those here.
FLATOW: And so when does the decision get made? When can we expect, you know, the drum roll?
GARVER: We are having a workshop at the end of September, September 30th through October 2nd, and it will be sponsored at the Lunar Planetary Institute down in Texas. We will have gone through the RFIs at that point, and we'll be giving the formal results of the RFIs and next steps. So you don't have long to wait at all. Just another two months till we get back to you with the compilation of this.
And it is a public workshop. We will be announcing in the next week or so how you can sign up to attend. And it will be a virtual thing, as well. You can also just sign up.
FLATOW: You need some TV show, you know. We've got "America's Got Talent" with the dancing and the singing. We need to see the "America's Got Talent" in innovation and science-based science, you know.
FLATOW: Bring them on and people - yeah.
GARVER: Bill Nye would agree with you. You know, we have cooperated with so many amazing TV shows through the years, even something like "Big Bang Theory," just a year or two ago in talking with one of their executive producers came up with this concept, and they followed through and had their character go to the International Space Station.
But it is true. There have been all kinds of great ideas for television shows, where maybe even the winner could go to space. Because one of our really most forward-looking programs is to have astronauts be able to go to space from the private sector vehicles here in the United States. That'll be coming in the next couple years, and we really believe that will get the cost down where more and more people can go.
FLATOW: Is it too costly to go to Mars? Is that ever going to happen?
GARVER: Today's technology, Mars is expensive and far away. We do not have the, really, ability to keep the astronauts alive and take that risk for the amount of time, with today's technology, would get there and back. What the President has said is asteroid by 2025, and Mars in the mid-2030s. And I think what we're really focused on are advancing these technologies so that when we do set the course to Mars, it's not 20 years and $500 billion away, right?
We need to advance this so that when we go, you can fulfill that mission, and do it in a way that provides real value to the taxpayer. We went to the moon during the Cold War to beat the Russians and to show U.S. technological leadership. Will we be going when we go to Mars in a peaceful way or a competitive way? We don't know yet.
FLATOW: All right. Well, thank you for taking the time to be with us. An abrupt musical - got us out. Thank you, Lori, for taking time to be with us. You're a great spokesperson for NASA, and very articulate, and we'll have you on again, I hope.
GARVER: Thank you, Ira. It's great to be here.
FLATOW: You're welcome. Lori Garver. She's the deputy administrator for NASA, and we're going to take a break. And when we come back, we're going to drop some science to a hip-hip beat. Don't worry, I'm not doing the rapping, so you don't have to worry about that. And we have some talented teenagers who are going to perform their own science raps, so stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.
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FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.