Washington: NASA is reportedly training a team of astronauts for a mission to land on an asteroid by the end of the next decade.
The US space agency is training the astronauts to land on an asteroid to explore its surface, search for minerals and even learn the skills they may need to destroy it should one pose a threat to the Earth, `The Daily Telegraph` reported.
NASA plans to send the team to make contact with an asteroid up to three million miles away by the late 2020s; it would take them far beyond the current limit of the Moon, which is 239,000 miles from Earth.
Travelling at around 50,000 miles per hour around the Sun with almost non-existent gravity due to their small size, landing safely on these space rocks will present a significant challenge.
But, Major Tim Peake, a British astronaut with the European Space Agency, who is also being trained for the asteroid mission, said: "With the technology we have available and are developing today, an asteroid mission of up to a year is definitely achievable."
He added: "Asteroids are interesting on a number of different levels. Nasa is focused on the science you can achieve as asteroids are essentially a historical record of billions of years of universe where we can take samples from.
"These objects are also coming extremely close to Earth all the time, but we rarely hear about it. With enough warning we would probably send a robotic mission to deflect an asteroid, but if something is spotted late... We may have to look at manned missions to deflect it.
"That is when the skills we are learning about how to work on an asteroid could be useful." In fact, NASA hopes to launch an unmanned spacecraft that
will use a robotic arm to collect samples from an asteroid by 2016 before sending a manned mission by the late 2020s.
A manned mission will aim to rendezvous with an asteroid up to three million miles from the Earth, taking around a year to make the entire round trip. The astronauts could stay on the asteroid for up to 30 days.
According to NASA officials, such missions to asteroids could help test technology for future human missions to other planets including Mars.
The US space agency hopes that such missions will provide new scientific information about the early universe while also providing valuable information for ways of defending Earth from collisions with asteroids.
Earlier this year, planetary scientists identified an asteroid more than 460 feet wide that could come close enough to Earth to collide with our planet in 2040.