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SALT LAKE CITY — NASA is reportedly exploring a plan to capture an asteroid and drag it into the moon's orbit, something officials say may help one day put a man on Mars.
The plan would take 610 years to complete, if implemented. Researchers at the Keck Institute for Space Studies released a paper recently detailing what would take place: an unmanned spacecraft would be sent into deep space to capture an asteroid and bring it into orbit around the moon.
The plan would be in line with Pres. Barack Obama's 2010 goal for NASA: to have sent a team of astronauts to visit a near-Earth asteroid by 2025. And rather than sending astronauts on an expensive, dangerous mission, NASA could bring the asteroid to them for about $2.6 billion, according to a feasibility study of the plan. That's less than the cost of sending another rover to Mars.
The mission is made possible by three key factors:
- We now have the ability to discover, track and capture small asteroids. The asteroid in question would only be about 20 feet across.
- We have the capabilities to build the powerful systems needed to transport the asteroid.
- NASA's timetable of sending astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit by the middle of the next decade will allow them to explore the asteroid.
The exploration of the asteroid would aid in future, more far-flung explorations, according to the researchers.
"Placing an asteroid in high lunar orbit would provide a unique, meaningful and affordable destination for astronaut crews in the next decade," they said. "This disruptive capability would have a positive impact on a wide range of the nation's human space exploration interests."
That could include helping NASA one day put a man on Mars, according to proponents of the plan, who said missions to smaller, near-Earth asteroids would "transfer directly to follow-ink international expeditions behind the Earth-moon system: to other near-Earth asteroids, (Mars moons) Phobos and Deimos, Mars and potentially someday to the main asteroid belt."
NASA confirmed to Space.com the agency is looking at the Keck plan as a possibility.
"There are many options, and many routes, being discussed on our way to the red planet," Bob Jacobs, a NASA spokesman, told Space.com. "NASA and the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory are giving the study further review to determine its feasibility."
Whether or not the Keck plan comes to fruition, NASA is developing a space exploration vehicle for astronauts bound for a near-Earth asteroid. He vehicle could be tested at the International Space Station as early as 2016.