One of NASA's plans for the next few years of space exploration has been for astronauts to land on an asteroid as early as 2025 to conduct experiments, return to Earth with samples and take another step toward deep-space travel. The space agency has even picked out an asteroid as a potential target -- 1999 AO10, a small rock (about 23 feet wide) floating around our solar system. Getting a manned mission to and from 1999 AO10 would take about a year. But as I noted yesterday, there are serious concerns about the effects of cosmic radiation on humans in deep space. So what to do? Well, if we can't go to the asteroid, we can always bring the asteroid to us! From New Scientist:
Researchers with the Keck Institute for Space Studies in California have confirmed that NASA is mulling over their plan to build a robotic spacecraft to grab a small asteroid and place it in high lunar orbit. The mission would cost about $2.6 billion – slightly more than NASA's Curiosity Mars rover – and could be completed by the 2020s.
Here's my favorite part of the plan...
The Keck team envisions launching a slow-moving spacecraft, propelled by solar-heated ions, on an Atlas V rocket. The craft would then propel itself out to a target asteroid, probably a small space rock about 7 metres wide. After studying it briefly, the robot would catch the asteroid in a bag measuring about 10 metres by 15 metres and head back towards the moon. Altogether it would take about six to 10 years to deliver the asteroid to lunar orbit.
I don't know why, but the idea of putting an asteroid in a bag strikes me as amusing. Not that I have a better suggestion, like a lasso or a giant rucksack or a flatbed trailer. At the very least, let's hope the bag is recyclable. Once the asteroid is locked into orbit around the moon, it will be much easier for astronauts to travel and spend some time there. You can read all 51 pages of the Keck proposal here. It includes lots of fascinating graphics and charts. They've clearly put a lot of thought into this. Now read this: