By Cole Hill
Never let it be said again that Michael Bay isn't a visionary; NASA's future looks a little bit more like "Armageddon" every day. The space agency is requesting $100 million in its 2014 budget for an ambitious new mission that would send a spacecraft to capture an asteroid and then lug it back to near-Earth orbit for exploration.
The grand plan was first advanced by a study conducted last year by the Keck Institute for Space Studies at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. The Keck plan proposed snagging a 25-foot-wide near-Earth asteroid and positioning it in "high lunar orbit" by 2025 - the same year President Barack Obama set as the deadline for a manned NASA mission to an asteroid.
"Experience gained via human expeditions to the small returned NEA would transfer directly to follow-on international expeditions beyond the Earth-moon system: to other near-Earth asteroids, [the Mars moons] Phobos and Deimos, Mars and potentially someday to the main asteroid belt," wrote the mission concept team in a feasibility study of the plan, according to Space.com.
NASA officials have confirmed that they are seriously considering the Keck plan as a strategy for extending humanity's reach into the depths of the cosmos, and expanding our footprint beyond lunar orbit. However, they temper their interest, noting that the plan is still in early development stages.
"There are many options - and many routes - being discussed on our way to the Red Planet," said Bob Jacobs, deputy associate administrator for the Office of Communications at NASA Headquarters, according to The Huffington Post. "NASA and the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory are giving the study further review to determine its feasibility."
With an overall cost of $2.6 billion, NASA says the mission would examine the feasibility and financial value of extracting resources such as water and fuel from asteroids, something the agency hopes would lead to establishing in-space refueling for spacecraft and could create an "off-Earth source of radiation shielding."
"Extraction of propellants, bulk shielding and life support fluids from this first captured asteroid could jump-start an entire space-based industry," the Keck team wrote. "Our space capabilities would finally have caught up with the speculative attractions of using space resources in situ."
Scientists believe the potential benefits of the mission are auspicious enough to convince even the most jaded cynics of space exploration.
"Placing a NEA in lunar orbit would provide a new capability for human exploration not seen since Apollo," the researchers wrote. "Such an achievement has the potential to inspire a nation. It would be mankind's first attempt at modifying the heavens to enable the permanent settlement of humans in space."