NASA is planning for a robotic spaceship to capture a small asteroid and park it near the moon for astronauts to explore, Senator Bill Nelson said on Friday.
The plan would speed up by four years the existing mission to land astronauts on an asteroid by bringing the space rock closer to Earth, Nelson said.
The robotic ship would capture the 500 tonne, 7.6m asteroid in 2019. Using an Orion space capsule — currently being developed — a crew of about four astronauts would nuzzle up next to the rock in 2021 for a spacewalking exploration, a government document obtained by media showed.
Nelson said this would help NASA develop the capability to nudge away a dangerous asteroid if one headed to Earth in the future. It also would be training for a future mission to send astronauts to Mars in the 2030s, he said.
Nelson, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Science and Space, said US President Barack Obama is putting US$100 million in planning money for the accelerated asteroid mission in next year’s budget, which comes out next week. The money would be used to find the right small asteroid.
“It really is a clever concept,” Nelson said in a news conference in Florida, the state where NASA launches take place. “Go find your ideal candidate for an asteroid. Go get it robotically and bring it back.”
While there are thousands of asteroids that size out there, finding the right one that comes by Earth at just the right time to be captured will not be easy, said Donald Yeomans, who heads NASA’s Near Earth Object program, which monitors close-by asteroids.
He said that once a suitable rock is found, it would be captured with the space equivalent of “a baggie with a drawstring. You bag it. You attach the solar propulsion module to de-spin it and bring it back to where you want it.”
Yeomans said that an asteroid of that size is no threat to Earth because it would burn up should it inadvertently enter Earth’s atmosphere. The mission as Nelson described is perfectly safe, he said.
The US government document said the mission, with no price tag at the moment, would be inspirational because it “will send humans farther than they have ever been before.”