An image mosaic of the asteroid Eros, with sunlight coming from the northeast, taken by the robotic NEAR Shoemaker space probe.
Nearly three dozen students from Caltech and around the world are competing this week in the "Caltech Space Challenge." The goal: design a mission to send astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid and return with a sample.
The five-day competition will involve two teams of 16 students.
Jon Mihaly is a doctoral student at Caltech and one of the organizers of the event. He says scientists know of about 8,000 near-Earth asteroids, but we have the capability to get to only about a dozen or so of them.
"Right now the main challenge is time-of-flight," said Mihaly. "Next to the moon, asteroids are the easiest things to get to. But we're still looking on missions on the order of anywhere from 60 days to as long as you want it to be. You could design a mission that was more than a year long if you really wanted to."
Caltech professors, along with scientists from Pasadena's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and other space agencies, will pick the winning mission.
The prize has yet to be announced. Mihaly says that will be revealed at the beginning of the competition.