By 2025, NASA plans to capture an asteroid and bring it into lunar orbit for study; they call it the Asteroid Redirect Mission, aka, ARM.
Initially, NASA’s plan was to send a probe to an asteroid that was about 500 meters (~1,600 feet) across, and then use the probe to swing the asteroid into orbit around the Moon. Then, we'd launch some astronauts up there to study it, and learn all about what kinds of resources asteroids might hold.
It was going to be difficult, expensive, and ambitious, but that's kind of normal for space exploration. Things haven’t changed much, apart from some details announced by NASA officials back in 2015.
We will still be capturing a space rock and bringing it closer to home, but the new plan has been simplified to be much more resourceful.
For one thing, the rock we'll be studying is going to be smaller, and the focus won't be just on learning more about asteroids. Instead, we're going to use this opportunity to test the technologies we'll need when we eventually send people to Mars. And while we're at it, we'll also be trying out a new planetary defense strategy so we can be better prepared to fend off rogue rocks out there that might mean us harm.
The new plan includes sending a probe to an asteroid by 2020.
We won't decide which asteroid until next year, but the three candidates so far are near-earth asteroids called 2008 EV-5, Itokawa, and Bennu (which totally sound like Star Wars planets, but I digress).
The probe will touch down on the asteroid surface, and begin looking around for a good-sized boulder. Then, it'll pick it up, and head back out into orbit around the asteroid for up to 400 days, collecting scientific data. Meanwhile, it'll use that time to alter the asteroids orbit a little, using something called a gravity tractor.
The idea of a gravity tractor is based on the fact that everything with mass has gravity. Even a relatively small probe maintaining what's known as a halo orbit around the asteroid.
Astrophysicists think that the probe will be able to use its gravitational pull to actually change the asteroids orbit. They're not looking to send it flying off in an entirely new direction or anything, but they want to prove that the technology works.
So, if we ever spot a potential asteroid headed straight for Earth, we will be able to deflect it. Nobody wants to end up like the dinosaurs, am I right?
Once the probe is finished moving the asteroid around, it'll head into lunar orbit with the boulder.
Then in 2025, we will send up two astronauts via the new Orion SLS Launch System.
The Orion capsule will dock with the probe, and the astronauts will do a bunch of extravehicular activity to study the boulder. All at the same time, this mission will allow NASA to test a number of deep space technologies, like brand spankin’ new spacesuits, and their system for collecting samples.
In about a month’s time, the astronauts will fly home with their samples and data. The new information collected will help us safely plan the first manned mission to Mars, now that NASA will have the overall goals of ARM figured out.
The next step is to decide on the individual details of the mission, like where they'll get the solar-electric propulsion system. More details will be released over the next year, so I’ll keep you posted if you subscribe to SkyFeed and get updates sent directly to your inbox.
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Sources: This story was originally published on SciShow Space. I am republishing a lightly edited version on SkyFeed in light of interest in the subject. Hofmeister, Kaitlin. "NASA's Ambitious Asteroid Mission." SciShow Space, YouTube. 2 April 2015. Web video.
Citation: Rovira, Lia N. "NASA Has Plans To Redirect A Threatening Asteroid." SkyFeed. 18 June 2018. Web article.