Nasa picks an asteroid rock to pave the road to Mars

2015-03-26 08:10

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Cape Canaveral - A Nasa robot ship will pluck a large boulder off an asteroid and sling it around the moon, becoming an ad hoc destination to prepare for future human missions to Mars, the US space agency said on Wednesday.

The so-called Asteroid Redirect Mission is estimated to cost about $1.25bn not including launch costs and is targeted for liftoff in December 2020.

It would be followed five years later by a human expedition to the space rock, a modification of a plan proposed by President Barack Obama in 2010.

Nasa also considered bagging a smaller asteroid and relocating the entire body into a high orbit around the moon.

After extensive studies, Nasa opted to collect and move a boulder, a mission that will cost about $100m more, but which better prepares the agency for the ultimate goal of landing astronauts on Mars.

"They're the kind of things that we know we're going to need when we go to another planetary body," Nasa Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot told reporters on a conference call.

Nasa plans to study the asteroid for about a year and test deflection techniques that one day may be necessary to save Earth from a potentially catastrophic collision.

Candidate asteroids

An asteroid or comet smashed into the planet about 65 million years ago, leading to climate changes that killed off dinosaurs and most other life on Earth then.

So far, Nasa has three candidate asteroids, but does not expect to make a decision about where to fly before 2019.

The mission involves flying a robotic spacecraft, powered by solar electric propulsion, to an asteroid for an extensive survey. Once a target boulder was selected, the probe would hover down toward the surface and deploy a pair of robot arms to grab hold of a 2 to 4 metre wide boulder.

"I'm going to have multiple targets... We can assess which one we want to go after and I then have three- to five tries to get it, or I can move on to a different one," Lightfoot said.

The captured boulder, which would remain attached to the probe, would then be nudged into an orbit circling high around the moon, a manoeuvre expected to take about six years.

The probe would include a docking ring so a Nasa Orion spaceship, carrying two astronauts, could reach the asteroid, a mission targeted for around 2025.

Read more on:    nasa  |  us  |  space

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