SAN JOSE, Calif. — Scheming to rearrange the heavens, scientists are busy planning how to pluck, push and park a spinning asteroid between here and the moon.
While most of us hope to dodge space rocks, NASA has unveiled an ambitious, $105 million plan to build a spaceship to drag one closer to Earth. It's the Space Age equivalent of bringing the mountain to Mohammed and a first step in our future voyage to Mars.
"Our goal is to go out there and rendezvous — then get it into the hands of the people who can understand it," said David Korsmeyer, director of the Engineering Directorate at Mountain View, Calif.'s NASA Ames Research Center, which will contribute to the project.
Asteroids command our respect because a big one could play us like a billiard ball. February's twofer —a little one rocked Russia and a bigger one was a near miss — only added to the anxiety.
But they're also valuable, and pursuing one could launch us into deeper space.
That's because we'll need a vehicle a whole lot better than a fuel-driven rocket. With an infusion of new NASA money, engineers hope to design a futuristic solar-electric vehicle that would make a slow, steady and sustainable trip to find an asteroid. It's the journey, not just the destination, that thrills scientists.
After finding a suitable space rock orbiting our way, the spaceship might push, tug or harpoon the asteroid. Or it might stuff the rock into a big bag, or perhaps lasso it in some 21st century version of a Roy Rogers rope trick.
"As a space-faring country it has been more than 40 years since we have been to deep space," out where asteroids lurk, said Stanford University aeronautics professor G. Scott Hubbard, who conceived the Mars Pathfinder mission and formerly directed NASA Ames. "We need to regain our 'chops,' " he said. "It's a demonstration of space exploration technologies for the future."
The "Asteroid Retrieval Mission" is still under development in Washington, D.C., where it is a major new goal for an agency that has retired the shuttle fleet and grounded a moon-landing plan. Suggested last year by the Keck Institute for Space Studies at the California Institute of Technology, the idea has found favor at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. There's a cooler reception in the budget-wrangling Congress.