NASA is apparently considering playing a little catch and release with some giant rocks. Basically, they want to capture an asteroid and deposit in orbit around the Moon by the early 2020s. The announcement of this new plan was made earlier this month, and left many wondering if this has anything to do with the Obama administration’s long term plans for establishing an outpost on the dark side of the moon or sending a manned mission to a near-Earth asteroid.
This makes sense, since if NASA were to place an asteroid in orbit around the Moon, a crewed space craft could practice engaging with it without needing to move beyond the range of a rescue mission. What’s more, such a body would come in handy as a potential stopover base for spaceships looking to refuel and resupply before setting off on deeper space missions – particularly to Mars.
What’s more, capturing a near Earth asteroid and bringing it in orbit of the Moon is a safer, cheaper way to perform manned landings on object in the asteroid belt. The nearest proposed target is a space rock named 1999 AO10, an asteroid which is roughly a year’s trip away. Traveling to this body would expose astronauts to long-term radiation since they would be beyond Earth’s protective magnetic field, and would also take them beyond the reach of any possible rescue.
Researchers with the Keck Institute for Space Studies in California have confirmed that NASA is mulling over the plan to build a robotic spacecraft for just such a purpose. They also confirmed that the project would take six to ten years and would involve the launching of a slow-moving spacecraft propelled by solar-heated ions on an Atlas V rocket. After locating and studying the target asteroid, the robot would catch it in a bag measuring about 10 by 15 meters and bring it back towards the moon.
Altogether, the mission would take 6 to 10 years, and cost about 2.6 billion. If successful, it may cut costs when it comes time to place a base in orbit at Lagrange Point 2 – on the dark side of the moon – or when missions to Mars start heating up by 2030. Yes, at this point, I’m thinking the people at NASA are thanking their lucky stars (no pun!) that Obama was reelected back in November. Always good to have powerful friends, especially when they can sign multi-billion dollar checks!