NASA AMES RESEARCH CENTER (CBS SF) — NASA revealed its plans Wednesday to fly robotic spacecraft to asteroids by the end of the decade.

The hope is that the unmanned spacecraft will eventually be able to redirect asteroids on a collision course with Earth, and develop the tools to get astronauts to Mars.

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“The Asteroid Redirect Mission will provide an initial demonstration of several spaceflight capabilities we will need to send astronauts deeper into space, and eventually, to Mars,” NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot said in a statement.

NASA plans to announce the asteroid selected for the mission no earlier than 2019, about a year before launching the craft.

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Once the spacecraft lands on the asteroid, the plan is for a robotic arm to deploy and collect a boulder for scientists to study.  It will then redirect the boulder into orbit around the moon in a process that could take six years.

“The option to retrieve a boulder from an asteroid will have a direct impact on planning for future human missions to deep space and begin a new era of spaceflight,” Lightfoot said.

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Advanced solar technology will be deployed on the robotic spacecraft, and new trajectory and navigation techniques will be tested that could help mitigate potential asteroid threats in the future.