The Keck Institute for Space Studies wants an asteroid orbiting the moon as early as next decade.
When most of us think of asteroids, we probably imagine massive death rocks hurtling through space to threaten our world and our lives. When scientists think about asteroids, however, it's not always about how Bruce Willis could best blow them up to an Aerosmith soundtrack. Asteroids hold a great deal of scientific potential, but with our limitations on space travel, it's exceedingly difficult to reach them and complete the necessary research. What's a rocket scientist to do? There's one surprisingly sensible solution: if NASA can't get to the mountain, bring the mountain to NASA. Or more specifically, drag it into orbit around the moon.
NASA is currently considering a plan put together by the Keck Institute for Space Studies to literally drag a small asteroid into high lunar orbit. The plan, if implemented, would begin by sending a slow-moving, robotic craft to a target asteroid approximately seven meters wide. After making some final calculations, the craft would catch the asteroid in a 10 by 15 meter bag and return to a high lunar orbit. The Keck Institute believes this project could be completed relatively easily by the 2020s, and would cost approximately $2.6 billion, only slightly more than the Curiosity Mars rover project.
There are actually quite a few benefits to the Keck Institute's plan. The Obama administration has previously expressed interest in exploring near-Earth asteroids, but the required long-term mission would place teams well beyond the reach of any rescue. Bringing space rocks back home would provide all the scientific benefits of an asteroid mission without putting lives in immediate jeopardy. Having a handy orbiting asteroid could also have applications for scientists learning how to extract minerals and fuel, which might set the stage for future exploration missions to Mars and beyond. And if something were to go wrong, an asteroid seven meters wide is nowhere near the planet-killer size that scientists usually keep an eye out for.
It will still be at least a decade before this plan bears fruit, if it's implemented at all, so we can't say for sure what will happen. Even so, a future in which asteroids orbit our moon, and are frequently visited by humans? That's a pretty cool future to imagine, whether or not we have our jetpacks by then.