Can you catch a falling star and put it in your pocket? Chinese scientists believe this is not impossible, as they plan to capture an asteroid and bring it down to Earth.
A group of astrophysicists has proposed an ambitious plan to take over a small near-Earth asteroid and transport it to Earth.
It may sound like it came straight from a science fiction novel, but the scientists believe taking an entire asteroid could provide an ample source of minerals of industrial and economic importance.
It could also improve current research into the origins of the solar system as well as the beginnings of water and life on Earth, while reducing the threat posed by near-Earth objects.
China Plans To Catch An Asteroid
"Unlike missions to bring samples back, we aim to bring back a whole asteroid weighing several hundred tonnes, which could turn asteroids with a potential threat to Earth into usable resources," says Li Mingtao, researcher at the National Space Science Center of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Li and his team advanced the idea at a contest for future technologies held in Shenzhen, south of Guangdong Province in China.
How To Catch A Falling Star
How does one capture an asteroid, even one that is smaller than the rest? The team proposes to design a spacecraft that can wield an enormous bag that can be used to carry the asteroid as it pushes it toward Earth.
As the asteroid nears the planet, the spacecraft activates a heat shield that will reduce the asteroid's velocity. This will prevent it from burning up as it penetrates the atmosphere of the Earth.
The spacecraft will then be directed toward an area with no human settlements where it is safe to land.
Huang Wei, chief engineer at an institute at the China Academy of Space Technology of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, believes the idea can bring in new developments in space exploration.
Challenges Of Capturing An Asteroid
The plan is, of course, not without potential challenges. The first one would be finding an actual asteroid to catch. Most small asteroids are very difficult to detect unless they come very, very close to Earth.
To address this issue, Li is collaborating with space engineers at the Qian Xuesen Laboratory of Space Technology to develop a constellation of satellites with the specific objective of finding and analyzing near-Earth objects with a diameter of 32 feet.
The team also acknowledged that they need to design a heat shield that can significantly reduce the speed of the asteroid from 7.7 miles per second to 459 feet per second.
They Plan To Bring It Back By 2034
Li and his team are currently eyeing a small asteroid around 62 million miles away. It is a little over 20 feet in diameter and likely weighs several hundred tonnes.
Before a plan to capture this object can be launched, the researchers need to know what its components are. Asteroids are rich sources of minerals, such as gold, platinum, copper, iron, and nickel.
The team hopes to launch their plan into space by 2029 and bring a small asteroid down to Earth by 2034.