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Robot to Land on Asteroid, Then Send a Boulder Spinning Around the Moon

Microspine grippers on the end of the robotics arms will be used to grab the boulder. (Photo credit: NASA.)
Microspine grippers on the end of the robotics arms will be used to grab the boulder. (Photo credit: NASA.)

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is working on a robot that will land on a near-Earth asteroid, find a boulder, and carefully set it into a stable orbit around the moon. Once there, astronauts on-board the Orion spacecraft will examine the boulder and extract samples for further study.

The collection robot will have an arm with microspine grippers on the ends. Thousands of these small spines will dig into the boulder to create a strong grip. A drill will provide final anchoring of the boulder to the capture mechanism. Once the boulder is secure, the robot will push off from the surface of the asteroid and engage its thrusters to leave the asteroid’s surface.

The ambitious project, which is slated to begin in the 2020s, called the Asteroid Redirect Mission. ARM’s purpose is multi-faceted, as it will provide data on asteroids, and to test ways to deflect them. The mission will also give NASA researchers good experience in sample collection that should prove useful in future missions to Mars.

“Asteroids are a hot topic,” said Jim Green, director of NASA Planetary Science, in a statement. “Not just because they could pose a threat to Earth, but also for their scientific value and NASA’s planned mission to one as a stepping stone to Mars.”

Don’t worry: the boulder used for the ARM mission be less than 4 m in diameter, so it won’t be big enough to cause any damage to the earth.  Should things go awry and the boulder head toward earth, it’s small size will cause it to burn up in the atmosphere as it plummets toward us.

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