With an annual budget of about $400 million, NASA’s Planetary Science Division is limited in how much you can spend on space exploration. That budget is also spread out across a relatively small number of missions.
But as Congress and NASA begin weighing a budget for exploration missions in the coming weeks, the NASA administrator has a different challenge to overcome.
In 2014 Congress passed legislation that sets aside $1 billion for NASA exploration activities over the next decade. The funding will be used to fund new ground-based telescopes, new deep space missions and robotic planetary missions.
One of those missions is a mission to a nearby asteroid to collect samples for scientific study. If such a mission were successful, it would set a space science record and help us figure out a way to mine the asteroid for precious metals like platinum that cannot be found on Earth.
The House-passed omnibus spending bill (H.R. 15) states that the Space Exploration Initiative includes “$75 million to study an asteroid capture mission. In addition, $2 million is provided for scientific studies of the surface of a Near Earth Asteroid to assist with planning a future mission to safely and profitably capture an asteroid to a suitable location for return to Earth.”
The agency will be able to get at least some of the $75 million it gets through Congress through other programs. For example, NASA will contribute to an International Asteroid Conveyance Mission using the spacecraft that launched during the 2013 space shuttle mission to the International Space Station. That $75 million contribution will go toward the purchase of the CubeSat missions.
The spacecraft launched for the mission cost $7 million, including launch, ground systems and launch support. If the cubesat mission is successful, the money will be used to send a similar cubesat to a much larger asteroid with the aim of capturing it for study.
The CubeSat mission is the same size and shape as the CubeSat that the California Institute of Technology tested in 2005 to test propulsion system for satellites. The CubeSat is still only about the size of a deck of playing cards. The NASA officials were unable to explain how small such a spacecraft may be compared to the CubeSat that will someday be sent into space.
The CubeSat mission will probably be a success for both the U.S. and Russia, according to scientists I spoke to. The CubeSat will be a good model for future small satellites. It’s a good example of a small spacecraft that has no significant limitations that could
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