From: Eric Hand, Science
Published March 26, 2015 07:29 AM

How NASA is planning on diverting an asteroid

NASA has decided to pluck a small boulder off an asteroid and bring it back to the vicinity of Earth, rather than bag up an entire asteroid, agency officials in charge of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) announced today.

The $1.25 billion mission, which is planned to launch in December 2020, would send a robotic spacecraft for a rendezvous with an asteroid in 2022. After touching down on the asteroid’s surface, the spacecraft would snatch a boulder several meters across. The spacecraft would then orbit the asteroid for up to 400 days, testing out an idea for defending Earth from a catastrophic asteroid impact: using the spacecraft’s own gravitational field to subtly alter the asteroid’s orbit. Next, the spacecraft would bring the snatched rock back to Earth’s vicinity in 2025. Finally, as part of preparations for a possible mission to Mars, astronauts would visit and examine the rock for some 25 days, using the planned Orion spacecraft to make the trip.

The boulder-snatch concept is expected to cost $100 million more than the bagging concept, but it would be better for developing technologies that would have greater value for exploring Mars, explained Robert Lightfoot, NASA’s associate administrator, during a teleconference today. Moreover, he says, whereas a bagging mission might get only one chance to snare its target, a boulder-snatching spacecraft will have a chance to survey the asteroid ahead of time before picking a target, and it could make several attempts at grabbing a boulder. “I’m going to have multiple targets when I get there, is what it boils down to,” he says. “That was the better value, in my opinion, for what we’re trying to do.”

Image shows how NASA'S Asteroid Redirect Mission would grab a boulder from an asteroid's surface, and then bring it back near Earth for astronauts to study. Credit: NASA.

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