The space program may be lagging lately, but NASA is still planning to put an astronaut on an asteroid by 2025. The trouble is that the gravity of an asteroid isn't strong enough to either pull a landing craft in or keep it on the surface. NASA's solution: shoot the asteroid with a harpoon.
On Thursday, NASA announced the results of the NEWOSIE Space Infrared Survey of near-Earth asteroids, a study designed to monitor asteroids that could potentially impact Earth (the good news: there aren't as many medium-sized space rocks as we thought there were). Now that we know where many of the asteroids around Earth are, NASA's next step is to visit one.
The plan is to get astronauts to one of these near-Earth asteroids by 2025, and researchers at MIT are working on ways to make it possible. So far, what they've come up with is something akin to something Batman would try.
Here's the plan: Shoot a tether with some kind of grappling hook/harpoon from the spacecraft to the asteroid's surface, then zipline the landing craft down to the asteroid, using the tether to keep it stable. Check out the video for a handy 12-second quick reference.
This whole process is made more difficult when you consider that asteroids are made of many different materials, so whatever you fire into one has to be tailor-made to keep it sticking.
"'Some asteroids might have a metallic core, and trying to anchor to them would be like banging a nail into an anvil,' says Jeffrey Hoffman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT and a former astronaut. 'Others may just be a rubble pile, which would be like trying to pitch a tent on a snowfield.'"
Another alternate but similar proposal includes having the landing craft fly around the asteroid to wrap a cable around the whole thing, creating downward pressure that would theoretically provide artificial gravity for astronauts. That's right, NASA might do to an asteroid what Luke Skywalker did to an AT-AT in The Empire Strikes Back.