Study Programs

Asteroid Return Mission Study

Workshop Team Leads
Fred Culick
John Brophy
Louis Friedman

Technical Development Leads
John Brophy
Louis Friedman
Tom Prince
Paul Dimotakis

An Asteroid Retrieval Mission Study was conducted to investigate the feasibility of finding, characterizing, robotically capturing, and returning an entire Near Earth Asteroid (NEA) to the vicinity of the Earth for scientific investigation, evaluation of its resource potential, determination of its internal structure and other aspects important for planetary defense activities, and to serve as a possible testbed for human operations at an asteroid. The study team evaluated different mission concepts and destinations for the Near Earth Asteroid (NEA) including the Lagrange points (Earth-Moon L1/L2/L4/L5 or Sun-Earth L2) as well as other Earth orbits. The asteroid will be 2-5 meter in diameter. 

Moving an asteroid is a huge idea – never has a celestial object been moved by humans. It is a huge idea, but not an impossible one.  A recent study at JPL has already shown possible feasibility to move a small asteroid, with a mass of ~10,000 kg, deep into the Earth's gravity well – even to the orbit of the International Space Station.

Animation of an asteroid return mission trajectory. Red is thrusting and blue is coasting. Everything is in an inertial reference frame. The example asteroid used for this animation is 2009 BD. Credit: NASA/Caltech-JPL and NASA/GRC

The study considered technology requirements for a potential asteroid retrieval in the following areas:

  • Astrodynamics: both low-thrust trajectory optimization and low-energy transfers (exploiting the so-called Space Manifold Dynamics)
  • Robotics: capturing and moving a large object - this has applications to orbit debris and even spent satellite removal in Earth orbit
  • Discovery and observation of smaller Near-Earth Asteroids
  • Human and robotic mission design, including the synergy between them:  If the small NEA will be moved to a Lagrange point, stepping stones for human exploration into the solar system can be literally created: in case the asteroid destination is the Sun-Earth L2, then a subsequent human mission to the asteroid at this location could be the first crewed mission to deep space.
  • Planetary defense:  developing technologies that can mitigate the threat of a putative Near-Earth Object being discovered on a likely impact trajectory toward Earth.
  • Characterization and utilization of asteroid resources
Dilbert Comic

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For questions contact: Fred Culcik, John Brophy, Louis Friedman or Michele Judd.


Illustration of an Asteroid Return Mission developed in the 2011/2012 Asteroid Return Mission Study Program.

KISS Asteroid Illustration

Image credit: Rick Sternbach / Keck Institute for Space Studies.