If all goes according to plan, NASA hopes to launch an unmanned spacecraft to a near-Earth asteroid in 2017. The as-yet-unidentified target will measure some 23 to 33 feet (7 to 10 meters) across and weigh up to 1,000 tons. When the ion-powered craft reaches the asteroid, it will inflate a large bag to wrap around and seize the object. NASA will then redirect the probe with its precious cargo toward home, where the Moon’s gravity will capture it into an orbit some 38,000 miles (61,000 kilometers) above the lunar surface.
NASA will then launch a manned Orion space capsule toward the asteroid. The video picks up at this point, showing the astronauts blasting off Earth’s surface, rendezvousing with the asteroid-capture vehicle, and spacewalking to the asteroid. Once there, the crew members photograph the asteroid and break off chunks to bring back to laboratories on Earth. With their job done, the astronauts will head back to their home world, completing the first human mission beyond low Earth orbit since Apollo 17 in December 1972.
Animation credit: NASA