Next time you and I have to worry about an asteroid hurtling through space toward our precious Earth, it may be NASA's fault. (Or China's.) The agency, which is looking beyond orbit to asteroids and Mars, is weighing a plan that would bring a space rock to us for convenient study rather than have manned explorers brave deep space.
The proposal by the Keck Institute for Space Studies in California involves sending a robotic spacecraft out to ferry an asteroid back this way, snaring it in the moon's orbit. A captive asteroid would be a lot easier to pick apart and study, not to mention land on. It wouldn't be astronomically expensive, either: at $2.6 billion, the plan's cost lands in the same ballpark as the Curiosity rover. All this could happen sometime in the 2020s, according to the plan.
For starters, the minds at the Keck Institute are picturing a small rock, maybe some 20 feet wide, which could be captured in a bag and towed back to Earth. Even still, the craft's proposed method of ion propulsion would mean a six to 10-year round trip.
Asteroids represent more than just a milestone target for NASA; they could provide valuable resources and a wealth of science if we ever figure out how to corral and mine the suckers.