Using up resources then getting rid of the evidence has become such prevalent behavior in the U.S. that we may as well change the definition of “The American Way.” Instead of doing it with the usual goods such as food and water, NASA is planning on capturing an asteroid, getting all it needs out of it, and then throwing it away like a common Earth rock. But how do you logically get rid of something that massive? You crash it into the moon, that’s how. But chances are, anyone reading this won’t be alive by the time that happens. Not the silver-est of linings.
The plan is to metaphorically grab a hold of a near-Earth asteroid and get it into a stable orbit around the moon. There, it can be used for exploratory and research purposes, remaining in place for multiple visitations during its years of use. “We think we have a lot of options,” said Steve Stich, deputy director of engineering at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “We haven’t really talked about it in detail about all those kinds of things we can go do, but certainly we have enabled, by the way we have designed this mission, multiple visits to the asteroid.”
Once we’re done visiting and utilizing everything this space rock has to give us (and probably selling coin-sized asteroid rocks via infomercial), it’s possible that NASA will just slam it down onto the lunar surface. They’ve never done before with used up space rocks, though several past-their-prime probes down have met such a fate. You’d think they’d just send Ben Affleck and Bruce Willis, they have experience in matters like this.
“You can be comfortable that [the asteroid] will stay in this orbit for 100 years or so,” Paul Chodas said earlier this month at a discussion at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ Space 2013 conference. Chodas, a scientist working with the Near-Earth Object Program Office at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, also said, “But if that’s not enough, I think that, once you’re finished with it and you have no further need of it, send it in to impact the moon. It makes sense to me.”
This planned asteroid-trapping is still some years away. Astronauts won’t make their way to an asteroid for the first time until 2021, when NASA’s Orion capsule and the Space Launch System mega-rocket will be sent into space together for the first time. This would normally be the point in the story when I’d link to the live feed of NASA’s Asteroid Capture Workshop, where officials would be going over the top 100 publicly submitted proposals for how to capture an asteroid. But with the government shutdown, the workshop was cancelled.