The space shuttle program may be dead, but it doesn't seem like NASA is slowing down. The space agency is said to be "mulling over" a proposed mission to send a robotic craft to capture a 1.1 million-pound asteroid and place it in orbit around the Moon, according to a report from New Scientist.
The feasibility of such a mission was exhaustively detailed in a study prepared for the Keck Institute for Space Studies by a group of NASA and university scientists that was published this past April. The study found that it would be feasible to send a automated craft to space on an Atlas V rocket to capture and return a 7 meter-wide (roughly 23 feet) near Earth asteroid at an estimated cost of $2.6 billion — just a bit more than the cost of Curiosity's mission to Mars. The proprosed craft would travel to the target asteroid, measure and match its spin and speed, and then retrieve the asteroid using a 10 meter tall, 15 meter wide bag.
Mission could prepare us for planetary defense
The Keck Institute for Space Studies report concluded that such a mission would be possible if advances were made to identify suitable asteroids and develop powerful enough solar electric propulsion systems to move the target. It also relied on the assumption that humans will be in space in the mid-2020s and would therefore be able to land on and study the asteroid. The study suggests that bringing an asteroid near Earth would provide an affordable destination for astronauts to land on in preparation for future Mars missions, pave the way for future missions using robots to bring resources to space crews, and help develop future mining operations. It's also suggested that it would provide information to help us prepare to deflect asteroids bound to collide with Earth in the future. It isn't clear how actively NASA is considering the proposal, nor why it would wish to capture an asteroid, but it currently sounds like the project merely being investigated for the time being. We have reached out to the space agency for more information.