NASA completes important milestone with Asteroid Redirect Mission
One of the keys to the successful permanent colonization of the Solar System are those celestial objects called variously asteroids, planetoids, minor planets, meteoroids, Near Earth Objects (NEOs), and even “vermin” by astronomers in the past frustrated by their unwanted light streaks appearing in their astronomical photographs (today we would say they were photobombing).
Roaming our cosmic neighborhood in the countless hundreds of millions, these bodies contain the vital resources required to build the infrastructure that future inhabitants of the Solar System will need. That the vast majority of them have low masses and neither any atmosphere nor life (that we know of so far) makes them ideal locations for securing colony building materials and fueling spaceships. As leftover remnants of the formation of our planetary system, they also serve as precious records of that distant era for planetary scientists.
NASA is naturally one of the major players in the goals of a permanent human presence in space. Recognizing the value of asteroids in these plans, they formed the Asteroid Initiative 2013. One part of the Asteroid Initiative is the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), an audacious plan to robotically explore an NEO, pluck a multi-ton boulder from its ancient surface, and place it in a stable orbit around the Moon.
Astronauts will then be sent to that newly created asteroid via the Orion spacecraft where they will examine it and return pieces to Earth for further study. This mission will give NASA the experience it needs for even bolder space missions deeper into the Solar System, such as the manned exploration and eventually the settlement of the planet Mars: How Will NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission Help Humans Reach Mars?
The space agency moved one step closer to the Red Planet and beyond with their formal approval of an ARM milestone on August 15, 2016. Called Key Decision Point-B, or KDP-B, the official review was conducted in July. The review board agreed upon the content, cost, and schedule commitments for the chosen Phase B activities.
“This is an exciting milestone for the Asteroid Redirect Mission,” said NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot. “Not only is ARM leveraging agency-wide capabilities, it will test a number of new technologies already in development.”
Among the activities for ARM now that KDP-B has been officially approved is a call by NASA for concepts from outside the agency for “partner provided payloads”, formally known as the Asteroid Redirect Mission Umbrella for Partnerships (ARM-UP). Managed within NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD), ARM-UP is a “[solicitation of] concept studies for basic and applied research and technology demonstrations, and mission investigations”, according to the NASA press notice. The space agency plans to present more information on ARM-UP with a virtual industry forum and community update to be held on September 14, 2016.
“Since its early formulation, NASA has invited mission concept feedback and development ideas from the planetary science community, general public, U.S. and global industry, and international partners,” said Michele Gates, program director for ARM at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. “With KDP-B under our belt, ARM can now move forward to define partnerships and opportunities for long-term engagement.”
While a specific asteroid will not be chosen for the mission until 2020, NASA has selected the NEO named only 2008 EV5 as their test subject. 2008 EV5 is a relatively smooth and fairly spherical body about 1,312 feet (400 meters) across that was examined by Earth-based radars during a close approach in December 2008. This NEO was selected due to being a primitive C-type (carbonaceous) asteroid, which is thought to have a composition desirable to both science and industry as well as assisting NASA’s deep space exploration goals.
Whichever asteroid is finally selected, ARM is scheduled to be launched towards it in December 2021. While traveling through space, ARM will demonstrate its advanced solar electric propulsion system called HERMeS – Hall Effect Rocket with Magnetic Shielding. This special shielding is considered to be a breakthrough in Hall thruster design that could be the key to more robust electric propulsion systems.
Once at the asteroid, ARM will carefully examine the celestial body to select the right boulder from its surface. As the robotic vessel brings the multiton sample towards its new home around our Moon, ARM will conduct yet another space first: The spacecraft will use its mass to pull on the small asteroid and deflect the big rock along its celestial travel path. This concept, known as a gravity tractor, will give NASA invaluable lessons in how to conduct future space missions in the event that an NEO might threaten Earth with an impact.
After the asteroid is placed in a stable lunar orbit, NASA is expected to launch a manned mission to Earth’s newest neighbor using its Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System (SLS) booster combination, possibly in 2026. The mission astronauts will not only likely be the first humans to visit the vicinity of the Moon since Apollo 17 in December 1972, but they will also be the first to directly explore an asteroid. These history-making explorers will collect and return samples of the asteroid to Earth. Their experiences will do much to educate NASA via direct experience for their future journeys to Mars.
Video Courtesy of NASA.gov Video
Larry Klaes is an author and freelance journalist specializing in news and educational work on the sciences. Klae's past endeavors include editor of SETIQuest magazine and President of the Boston chapter of the National Space Society (NSS). Klaes joined SpaceFlight Insider in 2016.