A manned mission to an asteroid has been bandied about for a while as the next big human spaceflight venture. But getting to an asteroid is tricky. They’re small and quick, making it complicated (though not impossible) to reach one and land on its surface.
A team of scientists at the Keck Institute for Space Studies in California have come up with a novel way to simplify the problem: why not bring the asteroid close to us? A asteroid orbiting the Moon would be easier to get to than one orbiting the Sun. Turns out, NASA is considering this audacious proposal. Looks like our Moon might be getting a companion in the coming years.
Keck scientists are proposing an almost science fiction-type mission: capture an asteroid and drag it into the Moon's orbit. A slow-moving spacecraft launched on an Atlas V and propelled by solar-heated ions could make its way to a target asteroid, maybe something about 23 feet wide weighing a moderate 1.1 million pounds. After briefly studying it to make sure it’s the right one to bring home, the robotic craft could autonomously catch the rock in a bag measuring about 32 by 50 feet. Once bagged, the spacecraft would travel back to the Moon and place the asteroid into a high-lunar orbit.
According to the team, if they started right now we could have an asteroid in lunar orbit by 2025, and all for just $2.6 billion. That means this proposed mission is just slightly more expensive and on a slightly longer timescale than NASA’s Curiosity rover’s journey from concept to Mars. And think – we’re not going to the target, the target’s coming to us.