Asteroid that whizzed by Earth may be grabbed by NASA
This undated handout two-picture combo of artist conceptions provided by NASA/JPL Caltech shows what NASA says are good candidates for a mission to capture an asteroid, haul it to the moon for astronauts to visit. One prime candidate swung close by Earth in 2011 so astronomers know its size, about 20 feet, mass and density, but they donât really know what it looks like. These images are two different artist conceptions of what the lightweight asteroid could look like, either a pile of small rocks flying together in formation, left, or a larger porous rock with pebbles surrounding it, right. (AP Photo/NASA/JPL Caltech)
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, right, talks with electric propulsion engineer John Brophy during a visit to Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., Thursday, May 23, 2013. They are standing next to an ion engine, which NASA engineers plan to use for an asteroid capture mission later this decade. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, left to right, Firouz Naderi, Director for the Solar System Exploration, and John Brophy, Electric Propulsion Engineer, are shown during Bolden's visit to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., on Thursday, May 23, 2013. NASA engineers are developing an ion engine for an asteroid capture mission later this decade. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
FILE - In this Feb. 15, 2013 file photo provided by Chelyabinsk.ru, shows a meteorite contrail over the Ural Mountains' city of Chelyabinsk, about 930 miles east of Moscow, Russia. After a surprise meteor hit Earth at 42,000 mph and exploded over a Russian city in February, smashing windows and causing minor injuries, scientists studying the aftermath say the threat of space rocks hurtling toward our planet is bigger than they had thought. Meteors like the one that exploded over Chelyabinsk _ and those that are even bigger and more dangerous _ are probably four to five times more likely to hit Earth than scientists thought before the February mid-air explosion, according to three studies released Wednesday in the journals Nature and Science. (AP Photo/Chelyabinsk.ru, Yekaterina Pustynnikova, File)
This artist rendering released by IMCCE (Institut de Mecanique Celeste et de Calcul des Ephemerides) shows water plumes spewing from the surface of the dwarf planet Ceres. Scientists led by the European Space Agency observed the plumes and reported their findings in the Jan. 23, 2014 issue of the journal Nature. (AP Photo/ IMCCE, Paris Observatory, CNRS)
This combination of Sept. 10 and 23, 2013 photos provided by NASA shows six comet-like tails radiating from a body in the asteroid belt, designated P/2013 P5. The Hubble Space Telescope discovered it in the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. A research team led by the University of California at Los Angeles believes the asteroid is rotating so much that its surface is flying apart. Itâs believed to be a fragment of a larger asteroid damaged in a collision 200 million years ago. (AP Photo/NASA, ESA, D. Jewitt - UCLA)
Maps show how scientists will narrow the field of impact in the weeks approaching the time of impact.; 2c x 5 inches; 96.3 mm x 127 mm;
This image provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech shows a simulation of asteroid 2012 DA14 approaching from the south as it passes through the Earth-moon system on Feb. 15, 2013. The 150-foot object will pass within 17,000 miles of the Earth. NASA scientists insist there is absolutely no chance of a collision as it passes. (AP Photo/NASA/JPL-Caltech)
An undated artist rendering released by NASA shows the NASA Dawn spacecraft in orbit around the giant asteroid Vesta. After spending a year examining Vesta, Dawn is poised to depart and head to another asteroid, Ceres, where it will arrive in 2015.(AP Photo/NASA)
This computer-generated image provided by Planetary Resources, a group of high-tech tycoons that wants to mine nearby asteroids, shows a conceptual rendering of satellites prospecting a water-rich, near-Earth asteroid. The group's mega-million dollar plan is to use commercially built robotic ships to squeeze rocket fuel and valuable minerals like platinum and gold out of the lifeless rocks that routinely whiz by Earth. One of the company founders predicts they could have their version of a space-based gas station up and running by 2020. (AP Photo/Planetary Resources)
This image released Monday, Dec. 5, 2011, by NASA is a mosaic of three images taken by the Dawn spacecraft's camera showing an impact crater on the surface of the massive asteroid Vesta. Since entering orbit around Vesta in July, Dawn has been beaming back images of the asteroid surface. (AP Photo/NASA)
This July 24, 2011 image of the Asteroid Vesta, released by NASA/JPL, was captured by the Dawn spacecraft at a distance of 3,200 miles (5,200 kilometers). Dawn entered orbit around Vesta on July 15, and will spend a year orbiting the body. After that, the next stop on its itinerary will be an encounter with the dwarf planet Ceres. (AP Photo/ NASA/JPL)
WASHINGTON (AP) - NASA is zeroing in on the asteroids it wants to capture, haul near the moon and have astronauts visit.
Officials on Thursday described a prime candidate: A tiny asteroid that whizzed about 7,600 miles above Earth in 2011.
At 20 feet long, it is "the size of a delivery truck; we might actually be able to put this asteroid in a garage," said Northern Arizona University astronomer Michael Mommert, who studied the rock, which goes by the inelegant name of 2011 MD.
That asteroid also could be a pile of smaller rocks that fly together in formation.
NASA's plan is to grab an asteroid with a giant claw or capture it with a giant inflatable bag. The asteroid would be parked above the moon, with astronauts exploring in a later mission.
NASA executive Lindley Johnson said there will eventually be about 10 possible rocks for capture in the early 2020s, but they may not all be small asteroids.
There's a second option NASA is considering: Sending a spacecraft to a much larger asteroid, using a claw to pluck off a boulder that's less than 30 feet and taking it near to the moon.
NASA will decide which option to pursue by the end of the year, said Michele Gates, program director for the asteroid mission.
So far, NASA has three candidates for each option. But Johnson said he expects more to be identified. NASA doesn't have to choose its final target until a year before launch, which could be as early as 2019.
But Thursday's press conference highlighted 2011 MD. That's because when it came close to Earth in 2011, it was examined by telescopes on Earth and the Spitzer Space Telescope. Details of the asteroid were published in an astronomy journal Thursday.
Those observations showed that it probably weighs around 100 tons but is so porous that about two-thirds is empty space and only one-third is rock, Mommert said.
NASA has touted the asteroid mission since the space shuttle fleet retired as a stepping stone to send crews to Mars.
The robotic cost of the mission would be about $1.2 billion, Gates said. But there's no good estimate yet for the astronaut part, which includes using a yet-to-be-built giant rocket, officials said.