NASA has bold plans to fly a spaceship out to a near-Earth asteroid, grapple it into submission, and fly it back to orbit around the Moon, all in the name of science and, possibly, saving the human race from extinction. Given that there are thousands upon thousands of these space rocks whirling about in space, this seems like a tricky task, but NASA says it has already identified three asteroids that might fit the bill.
The rocks are between seven and ten meters across and are close enough for a spacecraft to reach them, attach to them, and rocket them back home for detailed study. NASA is interested in studying an asteroid up close for the sheer science of it, because it would give us insight into the workings of our solar system, and because better understanding of the structure of these rocks would be of great use if any future asteroid threatened to impact the Earth. NASA may also allow commercial space companies to examine captured asteroids to learn more about the potential for asteroid mining–a potentially booming business.
NASA would likely use its Orion spacecraft to perform any capture mission, which could launch as soon as 2017. Orion is under construction as part of the space agency’s post-Space Shuttle rocket program. But the mission is mired in a political play involving funding, because, of course, politicians think they understand science and long term objectives better than NASA’s scientists.