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By Damon Poeter, PCMAG.COM

NASA this week put the official stamp on an initiative to capture a near-Earth asteroid and haul it back to a "stable orbit in the Earth-moon system where astronauts can visit and explore it."

The space agency apportioned $105 million for the mission as part of its fiscal 2014 budget, released on Wednesday. It also confirmed that mission simulations and training of astronauts for a trip to an asteroid have been ongoing since 2011.

"Performing these elements for the proposed asteroid initiative integrates the best of NASA's science, technology, and human exploration capabilities and draws on the innovation of America's brightest scientists and engineers," NASA said in a statement.

"It uses current and developing capabilities to find both large asteroids that pose a hazard to Earth and small asteroids that could be candidates for the initiative, accelerates our technology development activities in high-powered solar electric propulsion, and takes advantage of our hard work on the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft, helping to keep NASA on target to reach the President's goal of sending humans to Mars in the 2030s," the agency said.

NASA reportedly has its sights on locating a roughly 500-ton, 25-foot carbonaceous (C-type) asteroid for retrieval in 2019. An unmanned spacecraft using a kind of solar-powered engine would fly to the target object and haul it back to the vicinity of the Moon, where a team of four astronauts traveling in an Orion capsule would visit it in 2021.

Private asteroid-mining venture Planetary Resources praised the plan and said NASA's efforts would help private firms to achieve their own goals of identifying useful asteroids for the purpose of robotically mining them for water, precious metals, and other valuable materials.

Keep Reading: http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2417734,00.asp

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