Scientist hope capturing, relocating and closely examining the rock will help develop a plan to divert any dangerous asteroid heading to Earth in future(Image credit: NASA)
The plan would speed up by four years the existing mission to land astronauts on an asteroid by bringing the space rock closer to Earth, Sen. Bill Nelson said.
The robotic ship would capture the 450 metric-ton, 7.6-metre asteroid in 2019.
Then using an Orion space capsule, now being developed, a crew of about four astronauts would nuzzle up next to the rock in 2021 for spacewalking exploration, according to a government document obtained by The Associated Press.
Nelson said this would help NASA develop the capability to nudge away a dangerous asteroid if one headed to Earth in the future. It also would be training for a future mission to send astronauts to Mars in the 2030's, he said.
Once a suitable rock is found, it would be captured with the space equivalent of "a baggie with a drawstring. You bag it. You attach the solar propulsion module to de-spin it and bring it back to where you want it," explained Donald Yeomans, who heads NASA's Near Earth Object program that monitors close-by asteroids.
Yeomans said an asteroid of that size is no threat to Earth because it would burn up should it inadvertently enter Earth's atmosphere. The mission as Nelson described is perfectly safe, he
"It really is a clever concept,'' Nelson said in a news conference in Florida, the state where NASA launches take place. "Go find your ideal candidate for an asteroid. Go get it robotically and bring it back.''
The government document said the mission, with no price tag at the moment, would inspire because it "will send humans farther than they have ever been before.''
With files from The Associated Press