An artist's illustration of an asteroid retrieval spacecraft capturing a 500-ton asteroid that is about 7 meters wide. 
CREDIT: Rick Sternbach/Keck Institute for Space Studies  Enlarge

NASA's bold plan to drag an asteroid into orbit around the moon may sound like science fiction, but it's achievable with current technology, experts say.

President Barack Obama's 2014 federal budget request, which will be unveiled today (April 10), likely includes about $100 million for NASA to jump-start an asteroid-capture mission, U.S. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) said last week.

The plan aims to place a roughly 23-foot-wide (7 meters) space rock into a stable lunar orbit, where astronauts could begin visiting it as soon as 2021 using NASA's Space Launch System rocket and Orion capsule, Nelson said.

While challenging, the mission is definitely doable, said Chris Lewicki, president and chief engineer of billionaire-backed asteroid-mining firm Planetary Resources. [NASA's Asteroid-Capture Plan (Video)]

"Return of a near-Earth asteroid of this size would require today’s largest launch vehicles and today’s most efficient propulsion systems in order to achieve the mission," Lewicki, who served as flight director for NASA's Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers and surface mission manager for the agency's Phoenix Mars lander, wrote in a blog post Sunday (April 7).

"Even so, capturing and transporting a small asteroid should be a fairly straightforward affair," Lewicki added. "Mission cost and complexity are likely on par with missions like the [$2.5 billion] Curiosity Mars rover."

More of the story, click image