US space agency NASA yesterday detailed plans to undertake an ambitious new space mission.
The new project, known within the organisation as the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), involves the capture of a near-Earth asteroid, which would be transferred into a new orbit around the Moon.
Astronauts would then visit this captured asteroid in lunar orbit, and conduct scientific tests into its composition, as well as taking samples to be analysed back on Earth.
The mission had been on the table now for several years, but NASA has been reluctant to announce official details of the mission and its time frame.
NASA has now confirmed that rather than capturing an entire asteroid, the ARM craft will break off a boulder from a larger asteroid, and then use a solar-electric propulsion system to bring it into lunar orbit.
The target asteroid will be announced in 2019, a year before the ARM craft is set to launch on its initial mission.
Later it will be visited by NASA astronauts in the mid 2020s, while orbiting around the Moon. These astronauts will reach the ARM craft and captured asteroid via NASA’s new Orion spacecraft, launched atop the heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS).
“The Asteroid Redirect Mission will provide an initial demonstration of several spaceflight capabilities we will need to send astronauts deeper into space, and eventually, to Mars,” said NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot. “The option to retrieve a boulder from an asteroid will have a direct impact on planning for future human missions to deep space and begin a new era of spaceflight.”
Should it go ahead as planned, this mission will be the first manned spaceflight outside of Earth orbit for more than 40 years.
As well as collecting samples from an asteroid to determine its mineral composition, the ARM mission also seeks to test a potential method of protecting the Earth from asteroid impacts.
NASA hopes to use the ARM craft with its boulder mass to test a technique called a ‘gravity tractor’. This involves keeping the craft in halo orbit and slowly pulling the asteroid using the weak attractive force of the craft’s gravity.
Such an approach could be used on an asteroid threatening to collide with Earth, moving it into a new, safer trajectory.