By Kevin Kelley
Engineers at NASA’s Glenn Research Center have been given the task of developing the solar-powered propulsion system for the space agency’s ambitious asteroid capturing mission.
The proposed mission would have NASA capture an asteroid robotically, move it closer to Earth and then visit it with astronauts to study it and return samples.
Building on Glenn’s 40 years of solar propulsion research, the new assignment will require scientists to increase the amount of power generated by solar cells by a factor of 10. In addition to creating more efficient solar panels, engineers will need to develop the systems that process the increased power.
Glenn’s asteroid mission assignment was announced April 10 as part of the requested 2014 fiscal year NASA budget requested by the administration of President Barack Obama. Under the request, NASA’s overall budget would be $17.7 billion, down only slightly from what it has been the past two years. The final federal government budget will be determined by Congress.
“This budget focuses on an ambitious new mission to expand America’s capabilities in space, steady progress on new space and aeronautic technologies, continued success with commercial space partnerships, and far-reaching science programs to help us understand Earth and the universe in which we live,” NASA Administrator Charles Boldern said. “It keeps us competitive, opens the door to new destinations and vastly increases our knowledge.”
Bolden said the asteroid mission will use existing space transportation capabilities but also lead to the development of new technologies.
“This mission represents an unprecedented technological feat that will lead to new scientific discoveries and technological capabilities and help protect our home planet,” Bolden said. “This asteroid initiative brings together the best of NASA’s science, technology and human exploration efforts to achieve the president’s goal of sending humans to an asteroid by 2025.”
Glenn Director Jim Free said the center’s abilities to conduct cutting-edge research make it indispensable to the space agency.
“Glenn has the technology the agency needs to move forward,” Free told reporters.
NASA’s 2014 fiscal year budget earmarks $684 million for Glenn, $36 million more than in the 2012 fiscal year.
“This budget bodes very well for the future,” Free told reporters.
The number of government employees at Glenn, now at 1,628, will be capped at 1,571 in 2015-16, Glenn officials said. Reductions will be achieved through attrition, Free said.
While the asteroid propulsion assignment significantly increases Glenn’s space technology budget, the center would see smaller cuts to its aeronautics, education and science budgets.
Both Bolden and Free noted that the proposed budget assumes an end to automatic spending cuts, often referred to as the sequester. Bolden warned a lengthy continuation of the sequester would jeopardize NASA’s mission.
At Glenn, officials have prepared three plans to deal with the sequester. They have yet to decide on a plan because the final dollar amount of budget cuts required under the sequester has not been received from NASA headquarters, Free said.