NASA is reportedly backing a plan to capture a near-Earth asteroid with an unmanned spacecraft and drag it into lunar orbit for study.
The project, cooked up by scientists at California’s Keck Institute for Space Studies, could potentially deliver an asteroid to the vicinity of the Moon by next decade. Keck Institute researchers have confirmed NASA’s interest in their cheaper, safer alternative to sending a crewed mission to an asteroid, according to New Scientist.
The idea would be to send a “slow-moving spacecraft, propelled by solar-heated ions” to a small asteroid, perhaps about 7 meters wide, the science journal reported. The robot ship would capture the space rock using a “bag measuring about 10 meters by 15 meters.” It would take between six and ten years from the launch of the spacecraft atop an Atlas V rocket to the placement of the asteroid in lunar orbit.
The cost of such a mission would run around $2.6 billion, according to its planners. That’s just a bit more than it cost to land NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars earlier this year, New Scientist noted. Once in lunar orbit, the captured asteroid could be studied by robotic probes or possibly even astronauts landing on its surface.
Could the mission prove dangerous if something were to go wrong and the asteroid collided with the Earth instead of settling into orbit around the Moon? Since the plan appears to involve capturing such a small asteroid, probably not terribly so. By comparison, the Tunguska event is believed to have been caused by a space object measuring 100 meters or more across, while the theorized impact that killed off the dinosaurs might have involved a meteor nearly the size of San Francisco.
Interest in visiting asteroids has been heating up in recent years. NASA is working on an unmanned probe called OSIRIS-REx scheduled for a 2014 launch. It’s equipped with a robotic arm designed to pluck samples from a near-Earth asteroid designated 1999 RQ36, which the spacecraft is being prepped to reach in 2020.
It’s also been reported that NASA is actively training astronauts for manned missions to asteroids that could kick off in about a decade.
Meanwhile, a new private venture called Planetary Resources this year unveiled an ambitious plan to begin mining asteroids for water, rare metals, and other materials in the coming years.
There’s also an interesting intersection between the Keck Institute’s asteroid-nabbing project and NASA’s reported interest in setting up a floating base in fixed orbit near the Moon to serve as a platform for manned missions to both the lunar surface and to more distant destinations like Mars or a near-Earth asteroid.
The proposed space station would be situated at what’s called a Lagrange point, or L-Point, a place where the gravitational pull of two large bodiesin this case the Earth and the Moonare at an equilibrium, making it possible to place a spacecraft (or an asteroid?) in a fixed spot in space at relatively little expense. NASA wants to put its base at Earth-Moon L-Point 2, on the far side of the Moon, according to reports.
What if the space agency is figuring it might be able to kill two birds with one space-drifting stone? A 7-meter asteroid might be on the smallish side to serve as a deep space launching pad, but perhaps it could simply be the anchoring foundation for one.
By Damon Poeter, PCMag