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NASA's bold plan: Landing people on asteroids

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NASA wants to land astronauts on an asteroid in the 2020s
  • Its strategy is to capture an asteroid and put it in orbit around the moon
  • Two astronauts have been simulating an asteroid landing at a space center
  • Rock samples from an asteroid may garner information about the solar system

(CNN) -- This isn't a real-life recreation of "Armageddon." There's no clear and present threat to Earth.

But NASA says it's working on plans to send astronauts into space to land on an asteroid.

The NASA mission isn't planned to take place until the 2020s. That isn't stopping astronauts from simulating an asteroid landing in a 40-foot-deep swimming pool at a Space Center in Houston.

This graphic shows the path Asteroid 2014 RC will take as it passes Earth on Sunday, September 7. The space rock will come within one-tenth the distance from Earth to the moon, but it is not expected to threaten the planet. This graphic shows the path Asteroid 2014 RC will take as it passes Earth on Sunday, September 7. The space rock will come within one-tenth the distance from Earth to the moon, but it is not expected to threaten the planet.
All about asteroids
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Photos: All about asteroids Photos: All about asteroids

"We're working on the techniques and tools we might use someday to explore a small asteroid that was captured from an orbit around the sun and brought back by a robotic spacecraft to orbit around the moon," said Stan Love, one of the astronauts participating in the tests.

Testing tools

"When it's there, we can send people there to take samples and take a look at it up close," he said. "That's our main task; we're looking at tools we'd use for that, how we'd take those samples."

Love and his colleague Steve Bowen, who between them have clocked up more than 62 hours on real spacewalks, took a dip in the swimming pool at NASA's Johnson Space Center last week to practice climbing out of a mockup of the Orion spacecraft onto a fake asteroid.

Being underwater creates the lack of gravity that allows astronauts to practice walking in space.

The two men were working with engineers to try out tools that might be used, like a pneumatic hammer, as well as the type of spacesuit that might be worn on the asteroid.

Searching for targets

NASA says it's already trying to pick out an asteroid that a robotic mission could reach, capture and bring into an orbit around the moon. Astronauts would then travel on the Orion spacecraft to explore the asteroid and collect samples.

Material from the asteroid's core could contain information about the age and formation of the solar system.

The agency says the approach "makes good use of capabilities NASA already has, while also advancing a number of technologies needed for longer-term plans: sending humans to Mars in the 2030s."

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