NASA has been talking for some time now about its Asteroid Redirect Mission, a plan to snatch an asteroid out of space and send it into lunar orbit for study. Yesterday, the agency announced when the first phase of the operation will begin: the spacecraft will launch in 2019.

In the 2020s, a crew of astronauts will follow the rock

Examining an asteroid — space debris that doesn't change much over time — could give scientists a view into the earliest stages of the universe. If everything goes according to plan, NASA will pick out an asteroid in 2018; send up the spacecraft in 2019; either attach it to a small asteroid, or use it to chip off a piece of a large asteroid; and then send both the asteroid-grabbing machine and asteroid itself careening around the moon. Sometime in the 2020s, a crew of astronauts will follow the rock, hooking up to the spacecraft and mining the 32-meter asteroid for information on our cosmic past.

The final design for the craft has yet to be hammered out, although NASA is accepting ideas, and has released some broad sketches of how it may look. Meanwhile, NASA is also developing the Orion spacecraft the crew will go up on, and has another asteroid program in the works: a plan to launch a robot into space in 2016, have it latch onto an asteroid, and return samples by itself in 2023.