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NASA engineers in Cleveland are working on a futuristic plan to send a robot craft alongside an asteroid in space and snare it.
The idea raises the fortunes of Cleveland's NASA Glenn Research Center within the space agency.
"The president wants us to put an astronaut on an asteroid by 2025 and here Glenn is right in the middle of that," center director James Free told The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer (bit.ly/Zd67CX) in an interview published Sunday.
"The work we do is very unique. Glenn has the technology this agency needs to move forward."
NASA plans to pump $38 million into the Cleveland center in 2014 to speed up development of the more powerful ion engines needed for the asteroid-capture mission.
The solar-electric propulsion technology uses the sun's energy to generate the electricity required to make and expel ions to push the spacecraft.
In December, a team of Glenn engineers began planning the work the center will undertake to accelerate the technology for the asteroid-capture mission.
Making the necessary improvements will be "very challenging," but achievable, Free said.
The most powerful ion engines currently flying on commercial satellites operate on about 25 kilowatts of electricity, or roughly 250 times the energy needed to make a household light bulb glow. To snag a million-pound asteroid and push it into lunar orbit will take a 50-kilowatt power system.
Working with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, the Glenn team aims to build and test prototype engineering models of the propulsion components in 2014.
The space agency is exploring ways to improve its ground-based telescope detection capabilities to find suitable targets, said NASA associate administrator Michael Gazarik.
If Congress goes along, the asteroid-capture effort will mark the first time humans try to alter the path of a celestial body, a crucial step, NASA says, in learning how to deflect much bigger "planet-killer" asteroids and comets.
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