Capturing a near-Earth asteroid and dragging it into orbit around the moon could help humanity put boots on Mars someday, proponents of the idea say.
NASA is considering a $2.6 billion asteroid-retrieval mission that could deliver a space rock to high lunar orbit by 2025 or so, New Scientist reported last week. The plan could help jump-start manned exploration of deep space, carving out a path to the Red Planet and perhaps even more far-flung destinations, its developers maintain.
"Experience gained via human expeditions to the small returned NEA would transfer directly to follow-on international expeditions beyond the Earth-moon system: to other near-Earth asteroids, [the Mars moons] Phobos and Deimos, Mars and potentially someday to the main asteroid belt," the mission concept team, which is based at the Keck Institute for Space Studies in California, wrote in a feasibility study of the plan last year.
In the Keck plan, an unmanned probe would snag a 25-foot-wide (7 meters) near-Earth asteroid, then haul it back to lunar orbit for future study and exploration.
Its developers see the mission as a way for humanity to get a toehold beyond low-Earth orbit, allowing our species to hone techniques and acquire skills that manned missions to more distant destinations will require.
Space agency officials confirm that NASA is indeed looking at the Keck proposal as a way to help extend humanity's footprint out into the solar system. But the assessment is still in its early stages, with nothing decided yet.