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NASA to steal boulder from asteroid to test Earth-defense technique

The space agency has just announced plans to fly to an asteroid, snag a boulder, fly back toward Earth and put the rock in orbit around the moon. Because science.

You know what our moon really needs? Another really tiny moon orbiting around it. At least that's the thinking behind a just-announced NASA scheme. The project will see the space agency head out to a nearby asteroid, pluck a boulder off its surface, bring the rock back and send it traveling around the moon.

Actually, NASA wasn't just thinking that the moon is lonely and needs something to keep it company. The mission, planned for the mid-2020s, is part of the space agency's Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), an initiative that seeks to keep Earth safe from the impact of a giant asteroid should one start heading straight toward us.

"Although Hollywood has created some colorful methods for stopping an object that is on a collision path with Earth, no government agency, national or international, has been tasked or accepted the responsibility to stop such an asteroid, should one be discovered," NASA says of the program.

Once ARM's robotic spacecraft grabs the boulder, it will take the craft six years to return and position the rock in orbit around our moon. Prior to that, NASA can experiment with several ways of moving the rock around, learning in effect how to steer asteroids through space and hopefully how to protect us should one come zooming our way.

In addition to learning how to deflect asteroids, NASA says the mission will also test technology that could aid in future manned missions -- including a unique form of propulsion.

"Throughout its mission, the ARM robotic spacecraft will test a number of capabilities needed for future human missions, including advanced Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP), a valuable capability that converts sunlight to electrical power through solar arrays and then uses the resulting power to propel charged atoms to move a spacecraft," NASA said in a statement. "This method of propulsion can move massive cargo very efficiently."

Once the boulder-clutching-spacecraft is back near the Earth, NASA also plans to send the Orion spacecraft up to it so astronauts can test maneuvers and cutting-edge gear while drilling a sample of the rock (see video above, and check out this video for more on the unmanned part of the mission). An orbiting body around the moon could also be used as a future staging area for future missions to Mars, so the boulder could help with experiments that could lead to such a development.