If an asteroid is ever hurtling towards Earth, NASA scientists think they have a solid plan to prevent our untimely destruction — and they may get to test that theory soon.
No, thankfully there’s no Armageddon-level event headed our way (as far as we know, at least), but NASA is gearing up to tow a near-Earth asteroid into lunar orbit, where it can be visited by astronauts for research and exploration purposes. Plan specifics are not ironed out, but the mission could entail getting a small space rock or grabbing a boulder off the surface of a large asteroid.
Assuming NASA goes with the boulder approach, Space notes that asteroid-capture mission could also include a demonstration of the agency’s planetary-defense plan using an “enhanced gravity tractor” approach. That is awesome.
The theoretical defense plan proposes flying a robotic probe alongside an asteroid for months (or even years, with enough warning) and gradually pushing it off track with Earth thanks to gravitational nudges. Of course, that’d obviously require a good bit of prior warning. By grabbing a space rock from an asteroid and using it, that allows the probe to increase its mass without increasing the amount of stuff we have to send up.
The White House has set a 2025 deadline for NASA to get astronauts up to a near-Earth asteroid, so that’s the approximate timeline the space agency is working from at this point. Here’s hoping it goes well — or else we better get Bruce Willis on speed dial.