When President Obama released his 2014 budget for the federal government on Wednesday, much of it was spreadsheets and tables. But one corner of NASA's budget looked like something out of a movie script.
The space agency is planning to capture a small asteroid, drag it to the moon and put it in orbit. If the mission goes ahead, then within a decade, astronauts could visit and study it up close.
Louis Friedman, executive director emeritus of The Planetary Society, understands why some might be skeptical of the new plan: "The very idea of lassoing an object ... and towing it to Earth orbit sounds pretty preposterous when you first think of it."
But it's not crazy. Last year, Friedman headed a committee of academics that took a serious look at the idea.
"Not only was this pretty feasible, at least at the early look of it ... but it was the only way that humans would actually get out beyond the moon in the next couple of decades," he says.
NASA originally wanted to send astronauts out into deep space to study an asteroid in its natural habitat. But the rockets currently under development just aren't powerful enough, and the agency's $17.7 billion budget is being squeezed.
Proponents argue that this plan provides an affordable alternative. NASA will use telescopes on Earth to track down a small asteroid passing by. (Those telescopes, by the way, will also look for anything that might hit us.) Once they've found a target asteroid, the agency will launch a robotic spacecraft to intercept it. In Friedman's study, the spacecraft has a huge inflatable cone on the front. When it reaches the asteroid, the cone inflates and traps the rock inside. Then it deflates.
"I call it 'shrink-wrapping' the asteroid," Friedman says.
That process draws the 500-ton asteroid to the spacecraft and secures it. The spacecraft then steers it back toward the Earth-moon system.
But Jay Melosh, a researcher at Purdue University, has his doubts about the new plan.
"It's not impossible, but it's very difficult, and one could wonder about what advantage would there be in doing all that stuff," he says.
The goal of NASA is to get to Mars, he says. That requires solving difficult problems, like protecting astronauts from the radiation in deep space. NASA is wasting resources "on playing around with this little asteroid while not facing up to the major problems," Melosh says.
Even this mission won't be cheap. Estimates of the total cost of bringing the asteroid to the astronauts are currently around $2.6 billion.
The plan may also face opposition in Congress. Albert Carnesale is a professor of public policy at the University of California, Los Angeles. Last year, he led a review of NASA's strategic direction and found that many in Congress believed that NASA should be setting its sights on the moon rather than an asteroid. NASA's budget provides $78 million to start researching the mission, but ultimately Congress must approve the funding.
Friedman doesn't deny that this is a less ambitious project, but the Planetary Society director says it will get humans farther out into space than they've ever been before.