Nasa is planning for a robotic spaceship to lasso a small asteroid and park it near the moon for astronauts to explore, a top US senator revealed Friday.
The robotic ship would capture the 500-ton, 25-foot asteroid in 2019.
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.
Sen Bill Nelson said 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.
Nelson, also chairman of the Senate science and space subcommittee, said President Barack Obama is putting $100 million in planning money for the accelerated asteroid mission in the 2014 budget that comes out next week.
The money would be used to find the right small asteroid.
Donald Yeomans, who heads Nasa's Near Earth Object Programme, 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."
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 2030s.
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."
Researchers from CalTech's Keck Institute for Space Studies detailed the plan in a paper published last spring.