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NASA Details 2020s Asteroid Capture Mission

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Since 2012, NASA has been trying to figure out how to capture an asteroid and bring it back to Earth. This is a good idea for a bunch of reasons, but there are two big ones (according to NASA). First, the mission will help develop technologies that could be used to redirect an asteroid that’s on a collision course with Earth.  And, second, snagging an asteroid and dragging it into lunar orbit so a manned spacecraft can poke around it will be a useful way to prepare humans for deep-space travel, eventually, to Mars.

Last week, NASA announced a much more detailed plan of exactly what this asteroid redirect mission will entail. As expected, it’s a bit more conservative than the original concept for the mission, but with (the agency hopes) a substantially better chance of success.

NASA's original idea was to go out and find a near-Earth asteroid with a diameter of about 8 meters and a mass of about 500 metric tons, which, for the record, is not big enough to make it through Earth’s atmosphere intact. Once the spacecraft got to this asteroid, it would capture it inside a giant container of some sort (a net or bag), and then haul it back towards Earth.

The problem with this approach is that it’s a one-shot deal: if the capture container fails for some reason, that’s it, you’re done, and the two year, US $1.25-billion mission amounts to something depressingly close to zilch. Instead, NASA has scaled back the Asteroid Retrevial Mission (ARM) into a “Tiny Little Piece of an Asteroid Retrevial Mission” (TLPARM). Rather than trying to grab an entire asteroid all at once, NASA's spacecraft will arrive with a giant claw. After scouting the asteroid for up to 400 days, NASA will choose a likely looking boulder (3m or so in diameter), and then play the most expensive claw game ever to try and land the spacecraft right on top of it and make the snag. NASA speculates that they’ll have between three and five quarters tries.


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