The next giant leap in space exploration may be a short hop on a small space rock.
Next week, President Obama will request $105 million in NASA’s 2014 budget for a mission that would capture a small asteroid, tug it near the moon, and later send astronauts to study it and grab samples.
The asteroid-capturing robot could launch as soon as 2017, with astronauts flying to meet it near the moon by 2021, according to a NASA briefing presented to Congress last week.
The president’s request includes $78 million for NASA to develop technologies for the project and $27 million for beefing up the agency’s asteroid-detection work. The mission would fulfill a goal Obama set three years ago to send astronauts to an asteroid.
The mission would marry ongoing NASA projects, including asteroid detection, robotic spacecraft development, the construction of a giant new rocket — the Space Launch System — and the building of a deep-space human exploration capsule called Orion. A non-crewed test launch of Orion is set for next year.