Spaceflight Insider

NASA reaches out to private companies for ARM ideas

NASA's ARRM hybrid concept capture

Artist’s rendition of an Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM) spacecraft retrieving a boulder from a larger asteroid. Image Credit: NASA

NASA is reaching out to American industry for innovative ideas to support its Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM), the portion of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) in which a robotic spacecraft will rendezvous with an asteroid and retrieve a boulder to be brought to lunar orbit for later study. Through the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, NASA is asking for ideas for a Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP)-based spacecraft.

Diagram of the ion thruster of the Dawn spacecraft to Ceres and Vesta provides an idea of the Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) engine. Image Credit: NASA

Diagram of the ion thruster of the Dawn spacecraft to Ceres and Vesta provides an idea of the Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) engine. (Click to enlarge.) Image Credit: NASA

Ever since the ARM was made a part of NASA’s mission, the intention was to use SEP propulsion, which harnesses solar energy through solar panels and converts it to electricity. The electricity gives a positive charge to atoms in the chamber. The positive ions are then pulled magnetically to the rear of the spacecraft and then pushed away by magnetic repulsion, providing forward thrust.

On March 21, 2014, NASA officials held a teleconference in which James Reuther, deputy associate administrator for programs for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, discussed SEP. “Solar electric propulsion – at least high-power solar electric propulsion that we’re doing for the asteroid mission – is enabling for many other NASA missions as well as commercial space sector missions. So for all those reasons, we need to be doing solar electric propulsion on the asteroid mission. It’s really opening the door to its applications in many other realms.”

Robert Lightfoot, NASA’s Associate Administrator, expressed NASA’s hope for ideas from the private sector. “We’re eager to hear from American companies on their ideas for a spacecraft design that could accommodate our advanced solar electric propulsion requirements and robotic technologies. We’re also interested in what sorts of innovative commercial, international and academic partnerships opportunities might be practical and help reduce overall mission costs while still demonstrating the technologies we need for our journey to Mars.”

In order to meet NASA’s requirements, the spacecraft will need a solar array that generates 50 kilowatts of electricity. It will need a capture system capable of retrieving and carrying a boulder of 20 tons or larger, with a diameter of 19 feet (six meters). During the mission, the spacecraft will be required to demonstrate a gravity tractor technique, or “slow-push”, in which the spacecraft and the asteroid’s mutual gravitational attraction allow the spacecraft to nudge the asteroid from its course. This is one of the techniques considered for a defense system to protect Earth from asteroid impacts.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory tests a SEP engine. Photo Credit: NASA

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory tests a SEP engine. Photo Credit: NASA

After retrieving the boulder, the spacecraft must then return it to cislunar space, where a later crewed mission will rendezvous and take samples. This will also offer private companies their first opportunity to experiment with asteroid mining. The spacecraft may be launched by the Space Launch System (SLS) or a commercial rocket.

Under the current timeline, the spacecraft must be ready to launch by no later than the end of 2020, but funding and politics being what they are, it’s difficult to predict which NASA projects will be on the next President’s chopping block. The ARM has not received much enthusiasm from the public or the Congress.

The primary objectives of the ARM are to provide samples which will provide a better understanding of the composition of asteroids, which may lead to future use of in-situ resources, and to expand NASA’s ability to detect and deflect asteroids which pose a threat to Earth. Most importantly, NASA hopes the ARM will develop technologies which will be needed for future human missions to Mars. ARM is part of NASA’s Asteroid Initiative, one of the programs that replaces the Constellation Program, which would have returned American astronauts to the Moon and concentrated on lunar development as a staging area for future missions to Mars. President Barack Obama canceled the Constellation Program in 2010.

Originally, the ARM mission would have captured an entire asteroid and dragged it into lunar orbit, but in March of 2015 NASA chose instead to retrieve a boulder from the surface of an asteroid.

“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,” Lightfoot said. “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.”

Video Courtesy of NASA


Collin R. Skocik has been captivated by space flight since the maiden flight of space shuttle Columbia in April of 1981. He frequently attends events hosted by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, and has met many astronauts in his experiences at Kennedy Space Center. He is a prolific author of science fiction as well as science and space-related articles. In addition to the Voyage Into the Unknown series, he has also written the short story collection The Future Lives!, the science fiction novel Dreams of the Stars, and the disaster novel The Sunburst Fire. His first print sale was Asteroid Eternia in Encounters magazine. When he is not writing, he provides closed-captioning for the hearing impaired. He lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida.

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