Plan for dragging asteroid into lunar orbit surfaced
Plans by NASA to utilize a robotic spacecraft to drag a small asteroid to a lunar orbit surfaced today. According to researchers with the Keck Institute for Space Studies in California, such a mission would cost about $2.6 billion and could happen by the 2020s, New Scientist reports.
The plan envisioned by the team from Keck Institute involves a slow-moving spacecraft with an ion-engine, that would catch a rather tiny asteroid the size of a small bus in a bag, and then adjust its trajectory towards a high lunar orbit, a process that could take up to 10 years to complete.
Such a mission could correspond with current plans for future manned missions by NASA. The Obama administration announced their intention to send astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid, after a new manned moon-landing project was cancelled in 2010. Flying to an asteroid would actually take much longer than travelling to the moon, with a mission to one of the potential targets, asteroid 1999 AO10 taking about 5 months and exposing astronauts to all the challenges a deep-space mission brings.
For the objective of studying an asteroid in depth, it would instead be a safer and cheaper option to bring an asteroid robotically to the moon first, since it would be in easier reach of robotic probes and possibly humans, said Keck researchers.
A moon-orbiting asteroid would also be a promising and crucial first step on the path to asteroid mining, and of profound interest to private companies pursuing such ideas. Apart from precious metals like platinum, asteroids could also deliver the elements needed for rocket fuel, mainly hydrogen and oxygen, and facilitate the in-orbit production of fuel for spacecraft going to other more distant destinations like Mars and beyond, which would lower the cost of such missions substantially in the long run.