NASA mission to capture near-Earth asteroid for study

The mission to bag an asteroid could happen as soon as 2021, paving the way for sending humans to Mars in the 2030s.

NASA has released an animation of an ambitious project that includes capturing a near-Earth asteroid and sending astronauts into space to study it.

To see an animation of the mission, watch a video on YouTube.

While it sounds like science fiction, U.S. President Barack Obama has added the asteroid initiative to his fiscal year 2014 budget request. He initially announced plans for the mission in April 2010 and it could be executed as early as 2021.

The near-Earth asteroid would first be robotically captured in a maneuver akin to throwing a bag over something. The mission would seek an asteroid that is 7-10 meters in diameter, weighing about 500 tons.

From Earth a team of astronauts would blast off in an Orion spacecraft atop a heavy lift rocket. Once in space, the crew would set off on a nine-day journey to the asteroid, which would include a slingshot maneuver, or what's called a lunar gravity assist, around the moon to gain speed toward the target asteroid.

After carefully docking the spacecraft with the robotic capture vehicle, astronauts would don space suits and begin a space walk towards the asteroid. After lifting one of the covers on the material surrounding the asteroid, the team would collect rock and soil samples that would be analyzed later on Earth.

Once the team undocked from the capture vehicle, Orion would complete another lunar gravity assist on the trip home.

The mission is still in the very early planning stages and NASA will host a technical workshop at the end of September to discuss potential approaches. The asteroid mission is one step in the agency's strategy to send humans to Mars in the 2030s.

The mission is somewhat reminiscent of the 1998 blockbuster action movie "Armageddon" where Bruce Willis has to land on an asteroid to save Earth from the rock's deadly path. Among the real life goals of the asteroid initiative is, in fact, protecting Earth in addition to advancing technologies for human space flight and learning how to utilize space resources.

Nick Barber covers general technology news in both text and video for IDG News Service. E-mail him at Nick_Barber@idg.com and follow him on Twitter at @nickjb.

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