Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Everybody needs a pet asteroid!

Hello from orbit!

This looks like a good chance to introduce you all to my absolute favorite game of all time, Kerbal Space Program (KSP). It's a fantastically ambitious game that lets you build, fly, and probably crash rockets in a fictional universe where the challenge of space flight is just a little bit simpler than in ours. Play however you want in Sandbox mode, or play a career version of the game where you do science throughout the solar system to earn better parts (engines, fuel tanks, power supplies, etc.) to go further. The game is under development, but the aspects that are included are very polished and you can already play it and receive all future updates for free as the project finalizes.

The reason I bring this up is because the KSP development team has partnered with NASA to develop an in-game version of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) that will be released very soon. ARM is an incredibly ambitious project in which NASA plans to send a robotic spacecraft to a small asteroid (about 500 tons or so) with an Earth-like orbit, grab on to it, and fly it back to Earth, using some fancy orbital mechanics to swing it into orbit around the Moon. Astronauts would then be sent on the first ever manned flight of the Orion capsule to rendezvous with our moon's new moon (our grandmoon?) and take samples. To me, this is tremendously exciting, as it starts to push us towards the capability to manipulate our environment beyond the Earth. We will become interplanetary engineers! Check out the concept animation below to see how NASA plans to do it.

NASA's concept animation shows their version of how to catch a pet asteroid.

As for the game, players will receive new in-game parts based on real NASA hardware, and the game's solar system will now include asteroids for players to fetch from the depths of space. Since NASA is involved (and it seems that this game is very popular with NASA employees, for obvious reasons), it appears the KSP team is taking this project very seriously, and has included all three major aspects of the ARM mission: Players must Identify a target asteroid of suitable size and favorable orbital alignment, Redirect the object to a suitable location for exploration, and finally Explore their bounty with a manned (or... kerbaled?) mission to investigate it.

The project looks like it could help generate some excitement with the public for the mission which otherwise has received mixed appraisals. One interesting question related to this would be to ask how  this benefits our ability to potentially deflect a dangerous object in the future. As we currently have no plans in place for such an event (not even with the help of a rag-tag bunch of roughneck oilmen and a drunken cosmonaut), this could be the first steps towards developing the relevant technology. What do you think? And (more importantly) what would your ARM mission look like?