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NASA searching for asteroids to capture, tow back to Earth

Capturing an asteroid.
Capturing an asteroid.

NASA is making its preliminary plans to capture an asteroid, tow it back toward Earth, and insert it into lunar orbit in order to serve as a testing ground for new technology where astronauts can learn how to explore an asteroid before setting off into deep space on a mission that will take humans from a asteroid and to Mars by the mid 2030s.

First on the agenda: pick an asteroid to capture.

Speaking on the mission, Paul Chodas, a senior scientist in the Near-Earth Object Program Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)"There are other elements involved, but if size were the only factor, we'd be looking for an asteroid smaller than about 40 feet (12 meters) across.” Chodas also added that there are “hundreds of millions” of objects that size.

NASA needs to move quickly when a candidate is found because newly spotted near-Earth objects are usually visible in telescopes for just a few days. If available, NASA uses two massive radar telescopes, the Deep Space Network station and the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, — to get more details on size and rotation while other observatories are used to chart the asteroid's path in space.

NASA currently spends $20 million a year when seeking dangerous space rocks in its Near Earth Observation Program. NASA's 2014 budget request has $105 million for the asteroid capture and redirection project.

For many, the fact that NASA is doing this at all comes as a bit of a surprise.

The fact is, NASA has been having to make due with less of late. For starters, NASA saw extensive budget cuts for this year. Secondly, shortly after the 2013 budget was announced, NASA announced that the current Curiosity rover is set to be the last flagship mission for the foreseeable future as these most ambitious missions, commonly costing over $1 billion, have been eliminated from NASA's future plans thanks to the budget cuts. For the record, Curiosity cost $2.5 billion. For this reason, many never expected the asteroid capture mission to ever get the green light.

However, NASA got the 'go' for the mission and it is up and running. Stay tuned for updates.

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