NASA Wants $6 Million Worth of Ideas for Grabbing Asteroid

An artist's conception shows an astronaut preparing to take samples from a captured and bagged asteroid after it has been relocated to a stable orbit beyond the moon. An Orion crew spacecraft hangs in the background. NASA

NASA is putting out a formal call for projects that will help robots and astronauts grab an asteroid from deep space and bring it closer to Earth for study.

The Broad Agency Announcement, released Friday, envisions spending up to $6 million on as many as 25 proposals this year. The proposals should focus on technologies that can be used to identify potential targets, send robotic spacecraft to capture the selected asteroid and put it in a stable orbit beyond the moon, or help astronauts get to the space rock and bring back samples in the mid-2020s.

"We're reaching out to seek new and innovative ideas as we extend the frontier of space exploration," Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said in a news release. "To reach Mars, we'll rely on new technologies and advanced capabilities proven through the Asteroid Initiative. We're looking forward to exciting ideas from outside NASA as well to help realize that vision."

Capitalizing on ideas

The space agency is planning an Asteroid Initiative Opportunities Forum at NASA Headquarters in Washington on Wednesday to provide more information for potential participants. Next week's forum will be live-streamed online to folks who sign up.

Proposals are due May 5, and NASA plans to make awards around July 1 for projects that would wrap up in six months.

Greg Williams, NASA's deputy associate administrator for plans and policy, said the selection process would build on a workshop that generated hundreds of ideas for asteroid exploration last year. "We've got folks thinking," he told NBC News. The Broad Agency Announcement provides a "focused way" to capitalize on those ideas, he said.

NASA is already supporting projects such as the Asteroid Data Hunter contest, which is offering $35,000 in awards over the next six months to citizen scientists who come up with improved algorithms for identifying asteroids. The contest, part of the agency's Asteroid Grand Challenge Series, is being conducted in partnership with Planetary Resources, a commercial venture that's working on a new generation of space telescopes as well as asteroid-mining spacecraft.

What lies ahead

Next year, NASA will review mission concepts for redirecting an asteroid up to 30 feet (10 meters) wide — or breaking off a piece of a bigger asteroid and bringing it back.

"We have a list of about six or so candidates each for both of those concepts," said Lindley Johnson, program executive for NASA's Near-Earth Object Observations Program. "But we continue to look for additional candidates. ... We will continue to do that over the next two or three years until the time comes to actually determine which would be the best object for the mission."

NASA says the decade-long, multibillion-dollar program could produce new scientific revelations about asteroids, lead to strategies for diverting asteroids that pose a serious threat to Earth, and open the way for more ambitious missions to Mars and its moons in the 2030s. However, congressional critics say that the asteroid redirect mission has failed to spark enthusiasm. They want NASA to focus on the moon or Mars instead.