NASA must think our moon is getting lonely, because it's mulling the idea of capturing an asteroid and placing it in lunar orbit so it has a rocky satellite all of its own.
According to a report by New Scientist, researchers at the Keck Institute for Space Studies in California have "confirmed that NASA is mulling over" a plan to give it a buddy. The plan would involve launching a robotic spacecraft to grab an asteroid, before placing it in high lunar orbit. The mission would apparently cost around $US2.6 billion, and could be wrapped up by the 2020s.
Why is NASA so keen to give our moon a moon? Well, the Obama administration has said it wants to send astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid. Currently, the best target for a trip -- a space rock called 1999 AO10 -- would require a dangerous six-month trip by the astronauts in question. Bringing an asteroid into the orbit of the moon is a safer -- if complex -- option.
The current proposal for lassoing an asteroid would use a specially designed space craft. New Scientist explains:
The Keck team envisions launching a slow-moving spacecraft, propelled by solar-heated ions, on an Atlas V rocket. The craft would then propel itself out to a target asteroid, probably a small space rock about 7 metres wide. After studying it briefly, the robot would catch the asteroid in a bag measuring about 10 metres by 15 metres and head back towards the moon. Altogether it would take about six to 10 years to deliver the asteroid to lunar orbit.
It wouldn't be easy, of course, and according to Louis Friedman of the Planetary Society the proposal still needs "some technical and scientific fine-tuning". There are also alternatives, too, including placing an asteroid at Earth-moon Lagrange point 2. But if the Keck Institute gets its way, the moon may soon have a buddy. [New Scientist]