Asteroid lasso vehicle. A $17.7 billion dollar initiative. (via NASA)
The federal budget for NASA has been on a steady decline (equating to about ½ cent on the dollar) even since the space shuttle was still in its infancy. This limits the amount of overall programs that can be instituted or initiated for that fiscal year which means some of the more interesting endeavors (manned mission to Mars for example) wind up on the meeting room floor due to a lack of initial or continued funding. NASA recently released their federal budget initiatives. While those funds are still low, have some rather interesting programs with one surprisingly calling for manned space exploration. The 2014 budget outline ($17.7 billion) details various projects that include the shuttles replacement known as the SLS (Space Launch System) which places the new Orion Multi-purpose Crew Vehicle atop a newly developed heavy-lift rocket. Its NASAs intention to use the new reusable vehicle to not only bring supplies and equipment to the ISS but also as a vessel for returning to the moon, explore near-earth asteroids and deep-space exploration. Test flights for the SLS and Orion capsule should be ready by 2014 and 2017 respectively which coincides with NASAs Commercial Crew Program which will not only train future astronauts to pilot the Orion but also bring America’s human launch capability back to US soil (as opposed to using Russian launch facilities).
The more notable program to be initiated with the new budget details NASA’s ambitions to capture asteroids for human examination and exploration. The $78 million down payment earmarked for the project would go to development of a solar-powered robotic unmanned ship that’s capable of intercepting a relatively small asteroid and tow it into near-earth orbit for study. Once a suitable candidate is found the robotic ship rendezvous with the asteroid, where it encapsulates it inside of a durable bag and then tows the rock into a stable orbit around the moon. Astronauts can then use the Orion to dock with the robotic ship and study and explore the heavenly body with the utmost impunity, which could lead to new discoveries. This program would coincide with an Air Force plan to resurrect the Deep Space Climate Observatory satellite (scrapped back in 2001 because of cost overruns) in an effort to track inbound objects such as comets and asteroids. This would not only benefit NASA’s asteroid capture program but also serve as an early warning system for potential threats (including asteroids, comets and solar flares) that could impact the earth. The DSCOVR satellite has an expected launch date for sometime in 2014 and is slated to replace its aging counterpart currently in orbit. Also included in the 2014 budget are funds allocated for the continued use of the Mars rovers Curiosity and Opportunity as well as funds for laser communications, the James Webb Space Telescope (due for launch in 2018) and funds for renting private ships such as the SpaceX Dragon reusable vehicle.
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