Abducting an Asteroid: Yes, Humans Can and Are Planning to Do It

By Image Credit: NASA/Advanced Concepts Lab [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Image Credit: NASA/Advanced Concepts Lab [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

No, this isn’t some April Fools’ leftover joke.

In a matter of years, we could be dragging or abducting an asteroid into the moon’s orbit to facilitate scientific research. NASA has plans of forcibly bringing an asteroid into an orbit near the moon. The idea was proposed last year and will have a near-decade long implementation period.

Before you get too excited, let’s just put things in a realistic perspective. The asteroid being referred to here is not even as big as 1/1000 of the moon. The goal is not to bring something bigger than Hawaii but only something close to around a hundred times the size of an average human. Dragging an asteroid is of course not an easy task. Forget about what you’ve seen in those Marvel or DC Comics animated or live action adaptations.

There are three methods in this sci-fi-like goal of making use of available space technology to grab an asteroid and bring it home. The first involves the use of a robotic vehicle that deploys an inflatable bag that blankets or completely covers an asteroid to be hauled towards the moon. The second method makes use of a space vehicle with a compartment big enough to contain an asteroid. The third entails the extraction of a boulder from a large asteroid. These are just concepts, though. They have not been actually tested yet but they are deemed possible and realistic even with current technology. More details on them are presented below.

The “Inflatable Bag” Method

In this method, a robotic space vehicle bears a “bag” that can be expanded to engulf an asteroid. The robotic vehicle will then redirect the moving asteroid to a distant retrograde lunar orbit. The vehicle needs to be equipped with a high performance solar electric propulsion system that is large enough to overcome the movement of the asteroid being redirected.

By Image credit: NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Image credit: NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The “Capture Bag” Method

For this method, the space vehicle needed will be outfitted with an enormous containment facility that is enough to fit an asteroid 23 feet in diameter. It will come with maneuvering and hall thrusters. The hall thrusters will serve as the main propulsion system. They will be powered by an ion engine that uses xenon as fuel, accelerated by an electric shock.

The “Boulder Picking” Method

In this case, the goal will not be to capture a full asteroid but to take only a part of it. This means the need for a space vehicle that can land on a rather large asteroid, equipped with the paraphernalia to dig out a boulder and bring it to a stable orbit in the Earth-moon system.

The Target Asteroids

The asteroid being targeted by the NASA “asteroid grabbing” mission  is a near-Earth small asteroid called Asteroid 2009 BD. It was chosen for its slow rotation and manageable size. The asteroid is only around 30 to 145 tons. There are other asteroids being considered but so far it is Asteroid 2009 BD that is considered as the most likely option.

For the large asteroid being referred to in the third method, there are four candidates. One of them is Asteroid Itokawa which was once sampled by Japan’s Hayabusa mission. Another is Asteroid Bennu, the asteroid targeted by NASA’s Osiris-Rex mission. The two other candidates are Asteroid 1998 JU and Asteroid 2008 EV.

By ESO. Acknowledgement: JAXA ( [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By ESO. Acknowledgement: JAXA ( [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The Purposes of the “Asteroid Grabbing” Initiative

So why grab an asteroid?

The aim of the proposed NASA mission is three-pronged. First, NASA scientists want to bring an asteroid closer to Earth to make it easier for scientists to study it. Secondly, NASA scientists want to test new technologies that have not been actually used yet, to see how far current aerospace technologies can go in launching man to another planet. The third reason, on the other hand, is to test ideas for asteroid deflection.

There are asteroids nearer to Earth than Mars is. They can provide useful clues to prepare man for the higher goal of sending a human to the nearest planet. Also, by undertaking the long-term mission of hauling an asteroid, NASA would like to test how advanced current technologies would fare in long-term missions that require vehicles that do more than just transportation functions. Moreover, it is also an important to actually test if potentially hazardous asteroids can indeed be deflected by applying some thrust on their sides to keep them off their original tracks.

By ESO ( [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By ESO ( [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Dragging an asteroid from space sounds commonplace for sci-fi movies. However it’s not something tested in real life yet. This is far bigger than geoengineering. There’s more to do to develop the technologies that would make into reality all the typification of various space-based sci-fi movies. Nevertheless, mankind is making some promising progress.