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NASA Lays Out Their Plan for Capturing an Asteroid

NASA-asteroidNASA has been trying to figure out how to capture an asteroid and bring it back to Earth for a few years now. Good idea or bad idea?

Well, it’s a good idea for a bunch of reasons (according to NASA), but here are the two big ones: First, the mission will help develop technologies that could be used to redirect an asteroid that’s on a collision course with Earth.  And, second, bringing an asteroid within reach of earth will be a useful way to prepare humans for deep-space travel, like to Mars, eventually.

And now, NASA has laid out the specific details of its Asteroid Redirect Mission (or ARM) that will help them capture an asteroid sometime around 2020. Here’s the animation of NASA’s satellite buzzing by an asteroid before taking it back to Earth!

Ok, so maybe not the whole asteroid… but a piece of it nonetheless. NASA’s original idea was to go out and find a near-Earth asteroid with a diameter of about 8 meters and a mass of about 500 metric tons (that sounds pretty huge, but an asteroid would need to be much bigger in order to pass through Earth’s atmosphere intact). The problem with that idea: you only get one shot. Miss and you’re out two years and $1.25 billion!

Instead, NASA has decided to scale back the Asteroid Retrevial Mission (ARM) into a “Tiny Little Piece of an Asteroid Retrevial Mission” (TLPARM). Rather than trying to grab an entire asteroid all at once, a NASA spacecraft has been designed with a giant claw. It will scout the asteroid for up to 400 days and will choose a likely looking boulder (3m or so in diameter). What follows will be the most expensive claw game ever to try and land the spacecraft right on top of it and make the snag. NASA speculates that they’ll have between three and five quarters… er, tries, in order to bring this asteroid piece home.

But according to IEEE Spectrum, the mission doesn’t end there. This animation from NASA shows that in the mid-2020’s, two astronauts will fly an Orion capsule out to rendezvous with the asteroid as part of a 24-25 day mission. This mission will take them farther into space than any humans have yet ventured in order to retrieve this valuable asteroid piece.

NASA is still looking for a good asteroid candidate to play the claw game, and that will take some time—at least another five years or so. But that’s alright, since NASA has so many other projects in works for the next thirty years or so. A new age of space exploration is taking off right before our eyes and now is the time to get on board!

photo credit: IEEE Spectrum

 

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