If you think NASA’s latest scheme sounds like it was lifted directly from Michael Bay’s Armageddon, then you’re not alone. The plan is to capture a small asteroid using a robotic probe and then relocate it to somewhere around the moon. This would all go down in 2019. Astronauts would then begin playing around and exploring the asteroid a few years later, in 2021.
If this happens, it will be the first time that humans have gone beyond the low levels of Earth’s atmosphere in decades. The last time we broke that barrier was in 1972 with Apollo 17. Some theorize that this could lay the groundwork for a future mission to Mars. Though there hasn’t been an official announcement from NASA, both Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Florida, and an unnamed White House official have let it slip about this plan.
Nelson is himself a former astronaut—he flew on Columbia in 1986—and serves as the chairman of the Senate Science and Space Subcommittee. According to a press conference Friday, the plan involves a diminutive robotic probe, which will attempt to grab an asteroid in a device that is described as “a baggie with a drawstring.” Don’t you love it when they get all technical?
The probe would venture 10 million miles across the galaxy, carefully select an asteroid for the project, and then return it to the moon. At only 238,000 miles, this will greatly reduce travel time for astronauts to reach the asteroid. NASA would use the Orion space capsule to send a four-person team to the asteroid, where they would then space walk, collect samples, and explore.
NASA’s Donald Yeomans says the asteroid would be in the 25-feet and 500-ton range — small enough to burn up in our atmosphere should it somehow escape human control. And let’s face it, if this were a sci-fi movie, that’s exactly how it would go down. Wouldn’t that suck, to travel 20 million miles round trip, just to lose your space rock like that?
The White House decided to proceed with this project, allocating $78 million in 2014 for planning, after the meteor that hit Chelyabinsk, Russia, back in February. There was also one spotted over San Francisco around the same time. Ideally this project will advance asteroid identification technology, as well as providing real-world tests for equipment like heavy-lift rockets and the deep-space capsule.