At the recent European Lunar Symposium in London there was a formal presentation of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). The NASA engineer who gave the talk stressed that ARM is currently at a relatively early planning stage, so might of course never come to anything. The idea it seems is to “capture” a small near-Earth asteroid and move it to a stable orbit around the Moon. Once this has been achieved, it will be studied by both remote sensing and manned missions.
I sat through the presentation in a state of mild disbelief, to me it all sounded like science fiction, not something that would be seriously contemplated by the world’s leading space agency. The person sitting next to me didn’t seem to get it either and we exchanged a few slightly critical comments and various suggestions on how the money might be better spent. Based on all the interesting research results that were presented at the European Lunar Symposium, a stronger scientific case can be made for a return mission to the lunar surface and perhaps even the development of a permanent manned base. In the questions after his talk, I had the distinct impression that the engineer himself was not wholeheartedly behind the proposal and that, perhaps, he might also prefer a return to the lunar surface. It might be more ambitious, but it makes a lot more scientific sense.
Mind you, if NASA does go ahead with the ARM mission, it won’t be short of scientists applying to study the “captured” asteroid. As this image of asteroid 25143 Itokawa shows, even the relatively commonplace S -type asteroids turn out to fascinating objects when studied up close, as this one was by the Japanese Hayabusa mission. (image: JAXA)
Image of John McEnroe: Wikipedia and National Archief