NASA's plan to capture and tow an asteroid back into orbit around the moon took another step forward yesterday, as the space agency announced at this year's AIAA SPACE Conference & Exposition that they have chosen three potential asteroid targets for the mission.
The goal of the asteroid retrieval mission is fairly straight forward: use a robotic spacecraft to pull a space rock into a stable orbit around the moon, so that it's in a convenient location for us to study it. The actual logistics of doing that are a little more complicated, though.
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The first part was actually finding an appropriate asteroid target. We've identified a lot of the asteroids flying around us, but NASA scientists need to be very picky about exactly which asteroid to go after. Most importantly, the asteroid has to be easy to get to and easy to get back to us, and that's going to depend on its orbit, and how close to Earth it's going to be when they launch the mission. Just looking at that, they were able to narrow the field down to 14 contenders.
It also should be of a type that would be the most useful for us, such as a 'C-type' asteroid, which have minerals that contain water, thus giving us a potential source for water and oxygen in space.
Lastly (at least for the major criteria), the asteroid needs to be the right size, so that it's worth the effort (picking up a pebble isn't much use to us), but not big enough to take too much effort (or possibly pose a danger to us here on Earth should something go wrong). They figured that something roughly 7 to 10 metres wide works perfectly, and it was this criteria in particular that narrowed the list down to just three.
For a look at what NASA plans to do once it finally has an asteroid orbiting around the moon, they've recently released a video that shows what the manned follow-up mission will look like:
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The names of these three asteroids apparently weren't included in the announcement, but that's alright, since they may even find better candidates before the mission actually launches. Various observatories and amateur astronomers are discovering new asteroids all the time, and NASA is bringing their Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) mission back online any day now. NEOWISE will use its telescope and infrared cameras to find and identify more of the asteroids that are whizzing around out there, and spot potentially dangerous asteroids as well.
(Image and video courtesy: NASA)
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