The US space agency,
So a wide-field infrared survey explorer just known as Wise is a useful instrument for spotting any future potential invaders. But the agency has one extra reason for the neighbourhood watch. It wants to send a manned mission far into space to capture a 500-ton asteroid, land on it, and then bring it into some safe orbit near Earth. This ambition is variously daring, imaginative or crazy, or perhaps all three. It will demand technology that doesn't yet exist and commit astronauts to a complex journey into distant space that could last for weeks, to an as yet unidentified flying object.
The mission will take off on a rocket that has, so far, never left the ground, and commit the crew to Orion, a spacecraft yet to be completed. The case for chasing a near-Earth object is good: asteroids are leftovers from the construction of planets, and there are solid scientific reasons for wanting to know more about them; they represent a space traffic hazard with colossal destructive power, so any plan to deflect an asteroid would require detailed understanding of its behaviour and composition; beyond that, carbonaceous asteroids are rich in valuable minerals and an obvious resource for future space missions.
The reasons for not going ahead are that the mission would be cripplingly expensive, and could go horribly wrong. While the debate within the US space community intensifies, a spectacular European robot mission launched in 2004 is about to steal the headlines. Next spring, a spacecraft called
If the rendezvous is successful, the scientific returns will be prodigious; if it isn't, no lives will be lost. The difference is that
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