So tell me how this sounds to you: we build a robot, toss it into space, use it to grab a ton of asteroids, and park in orbit around the Moon for astronauts to walk on. Because I think that sounds awesome.
And that’s exactly what NASA’s planning to do!
Since 1998, NASA’s Near Earth Object Observation Program has been searching local space for comets and asteroids that might kill us. So far, it’s identified over 15,000 nearby asteroids, and now NASA scientists are ramping up their plan to use that data to take rock collection to a whole new level.
Asteroids have the potential to be a mindboggling source of raw materials. A space rock just 500 meters across could contain more precious metals than humanities entire known reserve.
One large asteroid named 16 Psyche is thought to hold 17 million billion tons of nickel and iron, enough to satisfy the demand on Earth for millions of years. Plus, asteroids contain water, which could be used as a source of fuel for rockets en route to Mars. Therefore, harvesting asteroids could probably be a crucial component of any serious attempt at colonizing Mars. The problem is that all that stuff is still out there in space.
Meanwhile, asteroids and Earth have a long history together, so grab your tea - because it’s full of drama.
The first step in harnessing all the goodness from these rocks is to bring one home for us to study. Sometime this year, NASA plans to launch the first asteroid redirect vehicle, which basically looks like a 50-kilowatt solar-power array attached to a really giant sack.
Using solar power, it will fly out to whichever asteroid NASA picks, taking about two years to get there, and when it arrives at the rock, it'll just bag it. Then it'll pull the asteroid out of its orbit so that it spirals in towards Earth just in time to get pulled into the lunar orbit by the Moon’s gravity, a whole process that’ll take another 2 to 5 years.
After that, the vehicle will park the asteroid in what scientists call a distant retrograde orbit, some 70,000 kilometers above the surface of the Moon. At that point, it’s just a 25 day trip for a crew of two to fly out there and see what’s up. NASA predicts that astronauts will be visiting our adopted asteroid by 2025 to inspect it, collect samples, and eventually dismantle it.
It will be our closest look ever at the structure and composition of an asteroid. So there you have it. Space factories and Martian colonies might be a long way off, but we’re developing the technology we’ll need to make them happen right now.
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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, Caitlin. “NASA's Plan to Capture an Asteroid.” SciShow Space, YouTube, 3 Apr. 2014. Web video.
Citation: Rovira, Lia N. "NASA's Plan to Capture an Asteroid." SkyFeed. 7 Feb, 2018. Web article.