On April 10, 2013, the White House and NASA released details of the US space agency's budget for the 2014 fiscal year. Included in the budget was a request for over $100 million to begin work on the Asteroid Retrieval and Utilization Mission. The mission would see a robotic spacecraft rendezvous with a small asteroid, which would then steer the space rock to the Earth-moon libration point (EML2) -- a region of gravitational stability beyond the far side of the moon. A manned mission would then meet the "tamed" asteroid to carry out science in-situ. It has been determined that such a mission would optimize the scientific gains while reducing risk and cost.
On Wednesday, NASA released an animation detailing the stages of asteroid capture, here are the highlights.
Although its exact configuration has yet to be established, the robotic asteroid capture spacecraft will likely be solar powered and be propelled by an advanced ion drive. Optimistic estimates put a 2017 launch window on the first phase of the mission.
When approaching the asteroid, the spacecraft will jettison the hatch covering the folded asteroid "capture bag." According to the Keck Institute study that the mission is based on, the asteroid will be approximately 7 meters wide and have a mass of 550 tons.
During approach, the capture bag expands.
The capture bag will expand like an accordion's bellows in preparation for asteroid capture.
The spacecraft will likely carry out an automated docking maneuver with the asteroid. Seen here, a laser is emitted by the spacecraft, guiding it in.
When fully expanded, and centered, the capture bag will envelop the space rock.
A draw-string-like mechanism will allow the capture bag's opening to be closed around the asteroid, securely mating spacecraft with asteroid.
Once secured, the spacecraft will "de-spin" the asteroid and begin steering it toward the Earth-moon system. This will mark the first time in human history that we have ever changed the trajectory of a natural object in space.
Meanwhile, preparations will be underway for a manned expedition to the captured asteroid. Seen here, NASA's future Space Launch System (SLS) rocket blasts off.
NASA's Orion space capsule will take a team of astronauts to the asteroid's parking orbit at EML2.
The Orion capsule will perform a docking maneuver with the robotic asteroid capture spacecraft after several days transit.
With the asteroid secure, astronauts will have the freedom (and time) to carry out extensive studies during extravehicular activity (EVA).
With the science done and samples collected, the Orion capsule returns to Earth.
The entire mission will culminate in the spashdown of the Orion capsule with astronauts on board. The asteroid will remain parked at EML2 for further study by followup missions to the lunar farside. You can watch the whole video on the NASA website: http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/videogallery/index.html?media_id=161659311