While it’s been seen done in many a Hollywood tale, landing on an asteroid still remains science fiction. In movies, it has often been to divert or obliterate an asteroid from Earth's way, but these zipping celestial bodies, which are too numerous to count, hold vast scientific and commercial prospects. Recent discoveries, including NASA ascertaining that asteroid Vesta is one of the oldest bodies in our solar system, offer new insights to scientists. Besides, asteroids, being almost singularly rock, have vast mineral and metal resources.
And perhaps for these very reasons, NASA is planning to land a team of astronauts onto an asteroid in a mission that may take place by 2020. According to details released by the European Space Agency, which is working alongside with NASA on the potential project, the space agency seeks to train a team of astronauts to potentially land them on "planet killer" asteroids. The purpose of the mission would be to study the asteroids and devise a way to destroy them if they pose a risk to Earth.
The mission itself would possibly be the space agency’s most ambitious, as it would involve travelling close to three million miles, a journey that would take nearly a year. But travelling so far and so long will be the least of the astronauts’ problems, as they will then have to "dock" with the planet killer that is hurtling through space at more than 50,000 miles an hour.
Speaking to the Daily Mail, Major Tim Peake of the European Space Agency said, “With the technology we have available and are developing today, an asteroid mission of up to a year is definitely achievable. These objects are also coming extremely close to Earth all the time, but we rarely hear about it. In the last year we had an asteroid come within Earth's geostationary orbit, which is closer than some satellites. 'With enough warning we would probably send a robotic mission to deflect an asteroid, but if something is spotted late and is big enough we might come into Armageddon type scenarios where we may have to look at manned missions to deflect it.”
NASA is presently monitoring 400 asteroids with a potential to hit Earth, but it has not yet been revealed which asteroid in particular NASA astronauts will be visiting. Prior to sending manned missions, NASA will be sending probes to collect samples by around 2016.
It is expected that when astronauts are sent on their mission, they will be spending up to 30 days on the asteroid, driving around using vehicles and studying the asteroid.