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NASA delays contract awards for asteroid mission spacecraft

The Asteroid Redirect Vehicle, part of NASA's Asteroid Initiative concept, is shown traveling to lunar orbit using its solar electric propulsion system in this artist's concept. Image Credit: NASA

The Asteroid Redirect Vehicle, part of NASA’s Asteroid Initiative concept, is shown traveling to lunar orbit using its solar electric propulsion system in this artist’s concept. Image Credit: NASA

NASA is delaying contracts and other awards for its Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), originally planned for early this year, by a few months because of uncertainty about the space agency’s budget. Space News reports that the delays were discussed on January 11 at a meeting of NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) in Tuscon, Arizona.

The space agency has delayed awarding a contract for the spacecraft bus of the mission’s robotic element from March until May. NASA has also delayed awards of hosted payloads that would fly on the robotic mission, as well as the selection of members of the mission’s “investigation team”. The delay was linked to the fact that NASA has been operating under a continuing resolution since the beginning of the 2017 fiscal year in October 2016.

“As you know, we’ve had an extended CR until April 28, so we’ve had to move our checkpoints,” said Michelle Gates, program director for ARM at NASA Headquarters.

The new schedule will delay the awards until after either the completion of an appropriations bill for 2017 or a decision to extend the CR for the rest of the 2017 fiscal year, providing more certainty about the funding available for ARM. Gates said that the delay will not affect the overall ARM schedule, which calls for the launch of the robotic mission in 2021.

Notional timeline, indicating key milestones in the Asteroid Redirect Mission. Image Credit: NASA

Notional timeline, indicating key milestones in the Asteroid Redirect Mission. Image Credit: NASA

Another mission discussed at the SBAG meeting was the European Space Agency’s (ESA) proposed Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM). The mission suffered a setback in December, during a ministerial meeting in Switzerland, when ESA member nations failed to pledge enough funding to continue its development.

According to Ian Carnelli, AIM manager at ESA, the mission needed to secure a minimum of 105 million euros ($112 million) from ESA members to continue development until 2019. The need to fund operations of the International Space Station kept AIM from reaching that threshold.

“We got to about 70 [million euros], which was very encouraging, before the funding from some major countries were diverted to the ISS,” he said. “I’m glad that ISS was indeed confirmed until 2024. Unfortunately, we had to pay for it,” Carnalli said.

The AIM mission is scheduled to launch in 2020 to travel to the asteroid Didymos. The spacecraft will characterize the asteroid and its small moon; it will also observe a collision by a NASA spacecraft – the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) – with that moon. The combined mission is called the Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA).

Carnelli and his team are now studying a scaled-down version of the AIM spacecraft, called AIMlight. The spacecraft would still launch in 2020, but it would be half the mass of AIM and either use a smaller launch vehicle or fly as a secondary payload. AIMlight would carry a single instrument (a camera) and would operate at the asteroid for a shorter period of time. The estimated cost of the mission would be 150 million euros ($159 million). Development of the DART mission will continue despite the uncertainty about AIM.

“Knowing how things go, when the experiments conceived, they were conceived that they could receive their results independently,” said Cheryl Reed of the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, which is developing DART.

Video courtesy of NASA



Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise. While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004. Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.

Reader Comments

Remember “For All Mankind?” How about NASA and the US claiming the mineral rights to this asteroid for all mankind — pay for the (enormous) costs of research, exploration, mining and wealth distribution and then put the remainder in a world bank account to be distributed equally to everyone on Earth through their respective governments, in perpetuity? Just think of how that could change the world economies and ecosystems. What do you think, NASA?

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