Rather than sending astronauts out to an asteroid -- the next step in the U.S. human spaceflight program -- a group of scientists wants to instead bring an asteroid back to Earth.
Ideally, they'd like something similar but much smaller than asteroid 2012 DA14, which will soar closer to Earth at 2:24 p.m. EST Friday than any other known object of its size.
"We're interested in learning how to bring back a 350- to 1,000-ton asteroid. This one is 140,000 to 150,000 tons," Paul Dimotakis, a professor of aeronautics and applied physics at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., told Discovery News.
The idea is not to actually land an asteroid on the planet's surface, but to put one into orbit around the Earth or the moon and then send astronauts or robots to retrieve samples.
For now, the show-stopper isn't technology, it's finding a suitable target.
"Things that are that tiny are very hard to see. Their orbits are very close to that of the Earth," Dimotakis said.
DA14 is expected to pass about 17,200 miles above Earth's surface, said NASA astronomer Donald Yeomans, with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.