NASA announced on Wednesday that in the mid-2020s, the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) will test out new capabilities that are necessary to get humans to Mars, according to a press release. An unmanned spacecraft will obtain a piece of an asteroid and slip it into orbit around the moon.
"The Asteroid Redirect Mission will provide an initial demonstration of several spaceflight capabilities we will need to send astronauts deeper into space, and eventually, to Mars," said NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot, according to the press release. "The option to retrieve a boulder from an asteroid will have a direct impact on planning for future human missions to deep space and begin a new era of spaceflight."
The target asteroid will be announced no earlier than 2019 - a year before the spacecraft launch. Three valid candidates have been identified so far, based on size, rotation, shape and precise orbit: Itokawa, Bennu and 2008 EV5. NASA expects one to two asteroid candidates to be identified each year leading up to the mission.
The journey to redirect the chunk of asteroid will take about six years, during which NASA will test planetary defense techniques - anti-asteroid measures - which would help the agency develop options for diverting near-Earth objects that turn into collision threats.
NASA has increased the detection of near-Earth asteroids by 65 percent since launching its asteroid initiative three years ago, according to the press release.
"Asteroids are a hot topic," said Jim Green, director of NASA Planetary Science. "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."