Nasa is developing a first-ever robotic mission to visit a large near-Earth asteroid, collect a multi-ton boulder from its surface, and redirect it into a stable orbit around the moon.
Once it’s there, astronauts will explore it and return with samples in the 2020s. The Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM) is part of Nasa’s plan to advance the new technologies and spaceflight experience needed for human missions into deep space.
The robotic mission also will provide the first large-scale asteroid samples on which to conduct research and analysis for better understanding of the composition and nature of these primordial planetary bodies, leading to future use of in-situ resources from asteroids.
The mission, which forms part of Nasa’s overall Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), will both use and expand Nasa’s ability to detect, characterize and mitigate the threat these space rocks pose to Earth. The highest priority of ARM is to affordably demonstrate and prove new capabilities needed for future human missions to Mars.
NASA calls for solar ideas
Through its Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, Nasa has issued a call to American industry for innovative ideas on how the agency could obtain a core advanced solar electric propulsion-based spacecraft to support the ARRM.
“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,” said NASA associate administrator, Robert Lightfoot. “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.”
NASA’s ARRM is being formulated to perform a number of technology demonstrations needed for the agency’s journey to Mars, including the use of a 20-fold improvement in state-of-the-art deep space solar electric propulsion capability to move and maneuver multi-ton objects.
NASA’s ARRM spacecraft will need to be able to demonstrate support of high power solar electric propulsion, with initial solar array power of approximately 50 kilowatts. The robotics capture system planned aboard the pioneering vehicle will be capable of acquiring a 20 ton (or larger) boulder of up to about 19 feet (six meters) in width from an asteroid’s surface and then returning it to an astronaut-accessible orbit near our moon. The spacecraft is being formulated to fit atop a variety of launch vehicles — NASA’s Space Launch System or a commercially provided rocket. The spacecraft will need to be ready for launch by the end of 2020.
While at a large asteroid, the spacecraft will also demonstrate a “slow-push” planetary defense asteroid deflection technique during the mission. This uses the spacecraft and boulder’s combined gravitational pull to attempt to change the course of an asteroid.
Redirecting and “parking” a large asteroid boulder within reach of human and robotic explorers also will provide American commercial enterprises their first opportunities to investigate the viability of mining asteroids for precious metals and other resources.