China reportedly has a madcap plan to “capture” an asteroid and put it into orbit around the moon within the next decade.
Ye Peijian, chief commander and designer of China’s lunar exploration programme, outlined the plan at a meeting of space authorities in Beijing this week.
The ultimate aim would be to mine the asteroid for metal and minerals, or use it as the base for a space station, according to state media reports .
Ye said the nation’s first batch of asteroid exploration spacecraft would probably be launched in about 2020.
China’s plan for capturing an asteroid involves landing and anchoring a spacecraft on its surface, firing up multiple rocket boosters, and projecting it into the orbit of the moon.
Once in orbit, it intends to use robotic machinery to excavate mineral ores and transport them back to Earth.
Many near-Earth asteroids contain high concentrations of precious metals.
Earlier this year, NASA announced it was sending a robotic spacecraft to investigate a giant metal asteroid known as 16 Psyche in 2030, which could contain gold.
It is though that the metal asteroid is the exposed core of a former planet the size of Mars – something that could reveal how our planet was formed.
The robotic spacecraft will launch in October 2023, and will arrive at 16 Psyche in 2030.
Ye said the economic value of some near-Earth asteroid could amount to trillions of US dollars, helping justify the enormous cost and risk of space exploration.
However, he admitted that it could take a further four decades before China had the technology and infrastructure in place to mine the asteroid.
As well as mining the Asteroid, the Chinese government is also interested in using it as the base for a permanent space station.
Ye said the natural spin of the asteroid generates a centrifugal force that could be transformed into gravity, making it possible for astronauts to land on it.
Chinese space technology still lags decades behind the US and Europe, but the Chinese government has poured enormous resources into the development of its space programme.