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ARM illustration
In this NASA illustration, an Orion spacecraft prepares to dock with the Asteroid Redirect Mission robotic spacecraft, which has captured and bagged a small asteroid. (credit: NASA)

After a year, NASA’s asteroid mission still seeks definition

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Nearly a year ago, NASA unveiled its latest space exploration initiative. As part of its fiscal year 2014 budget proposal released in early April 2013, the space agency announced plans to send a spacecraft to an as-yet-undiscovered asteroid that would adjust that asteroid’s orbit just enough to place it in cislunar space. Once there, astronauts could visit the asteroid using NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft, thus fulfilling the goal established by President Obama in 2010 to send humans to a near Earth asteroid by 2025 (see “To catch a planetoid”, The Space Review, April 22, 2013).

NASA’s solicitation is focused on several key technology areas the agency identified after previous requests for information.

One of the criticisms of what was originally called the Asteroid Retrieval Mission—since renamed the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM)—is the lack of details about it that NASA released last April and in subsequent months. Critics, particularly in Congress, complained that NASA was unable to provide many details on the mission, including a schedule or budget. In the House, members went as far to incorporate language into its draft of a NASA authorization bill, as well as its fiscal year 2014 appropriations bill, that would block NASA from spending money on the program.

The final 2014 spending bill, completed in January, didn’t include the House language, but did offer a mild rebuke to NASA about ARM. “While the ARM is still an emerging concept, NASA has not provided Congress with satisfactory justification materials such as detailed cost estimates or impacts to ongoing missions,” the report accompanying the bill stated, adding that NASA needed to complete “significant preliminary activities” before Congress would be willing to support it. As NASA kicks off an effort to solicit technologies that could be used in the ARM, some in Congress remain as skeptical now of the mission as they were last year.

Seeking ideas for the ARM

On March 21, NASA issued a broad agency announcement (BAA) for technologies related to the ARM, seeking proposals from industry and academia. While the BAA is broad in terms of who can submit proposals, it’s narrowly focused on several technologies and concepts related to the mission: asteroid capture systems, rendezvous sensors, use of commercial spacecraft buses for the robotic spacecraft that would redirect the asteroid, partnership opportunities for secondary payloads, and partnership opportunities for the later crewed mission to the redirected asteroid.

NASA chose these specific areas after reviewing previous input, including a request for information last year and a two-part workshop in September and November of last year. “We identified a few areas where we’d like to get some more specific input and information,” said Greg Williams, deputy associate administrator for policy and plans in NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, in a teleconference with reporters March 21. “That’s what led to the BAA we are releasing.”

Proposals for the BAA are due to NASA on May 5, with contracts to be awarded by around July 1. NASA is making a total of $6 million available under the BAA, with $5.6 million of that going to contracts for asteroid capture systems, rendezvous sensors, and use of commercial spacecraft buses. Final reports would be due in six months, around the end of the calendar year.

The results of the studies would, along with other NASA efforts, feed into a “Mission Concept Review” (MCR) for ARM. In the March 21 telecon, NASA officials were vague about when the MCR would take place other than late this year or early next year; at an Asteroid Initiative Forum held at NASA Headquarters on March 26, one participant said the MCR was planned for “the February ’15 timeframe.”

The scheduling of the MCR, Williams said in the telecon, will depend on the progress NASA makes on various ARM-related studies. “The schedule will be a little tight, but we’re hoping to be able to garner what we can from these pretty quickly and infuse them into our planning process,” he said of the BAA studies, adding that the MCR would not be the only opportunity make use of what comes out of the studies. “We want to use the results of this for our review, but that’s not the last word on how we will use these.”

“Even internal to the asteroid team, we’ve been talking about what things we need to make decisions on by MCR, and what things are going to remain open after MCR in terms of the concept itself,” added James Reuther, deputy associate administrator for programs in NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. “We expect some of the elements, and even some of the elements aligned with the BAA, to be still somewhat open at MCR.”

“The asteroid mission is not equivalent to EM-2,” said Williams. “We have not yet decided which EM-x would be the crewed rendezvous with this asteroid.”

Many aspects of the ARM still remain wide open, including what kind of asteroid the spacecraft will return. The primary mission concept involves sending a robotic spacecraft to an asteroid between about four and ten meters in diameter and then adjusting its orbit so that it’s captured into orbit around the Moon. An alternative concept, though, would send the spacecraft to a larger asteroid to pluck a boulder a few meters across off its surface and then return that to lunar orbit.

The mission objectives of ARM in general, regardless of the specific concept, have recently been broadened to include what NASA calls a demonstration of “basic planetary defense techniques.” That could include use of kinetic impactors, ion beam deflection, or a “gravity tractor,” where the robotic spacecraft maintains position a short distance from the asteroid and uses gravitational to tug on the asteroid and adjust its orbit.

Those two mission concepts have been studied by separate teams, but of last week that was changing. In comment at the beginning of last week’s forum, NASA administrator Charles Bolden said NASA was combining its two asteroid mission concept teams into a single team. “We really are combining this into one team now, the teams are pulling together,” NASA associate administrator Robert Lightfoot confirmed at the end of the forum. “We’re working on center assignments, who will be working on what to get us to the Mission Concept Review.”

Some key questions about ARM, though, remain outstanding, including where the mission will go and when. Since the ARM was announced last April, astronomers have discovered more than 1,000 near Earth asteroids, said Lindley Johnson, NASA near Earth object (NEO) program executive, at the forum Of those, though, only 20 are accessible by spacecraft in the next ten years. Eight of those 20 would be small enough for capture, but none are in orbits that allow for follow-up observations in the foreseeable future. Another nine could be candidates for the alternative boulder retrieval concept, but only two will be available for follow-up observations.

One particular object of interest, Johnson said, is 2011 MD, a near Earth asteroid that appears to be the right size and is in a promising orbit. The Spitzer Space Telescope recently observed the asteroid, and astronomers will use those infrared observations to better constrain its size. “We should some information in the next month about what we have found out about that object,” he said.

2011 MD is one of several objects that have been used as notional targets for the ARM for mission planning. Assuming a mid-2019 launch of the baseline asteroid capture mission, though, none of those objects would be “crew accessible” before 2024, and in some cases not until 2027. The several larger asteroids being considered for the boulder retrieval alternative also would not have those objects in lunar orbit until at least 2024.

This means it’s highly unlikely that the first crewed SLS/Orion mission, Exploration Mission 2 (EM-2), slated for launch in 2021, will be able to go to an asteroid, as some NASA officials suggested when the ARM was rolled out last year. A mission in the mid-2020s would instead likely be the second or third crewed mission, although NASA has not made any specific plans yet.

“The asteroid mission is not equivalent to EM-2,” said Williams in the March 21 telecon with reporters. “We have not yet decided which EM-x would be the crewed rendezvous with this asteroid. It’s really largely dependent on the asteroid that’s picked and when nature says it can be rendezvoused with.”

The cost of the ARM has yet to be determined, but Lightfoot said he expected it cost significantly less than $2.6 billion, the estimate from a 2012 study by the Keck Institute for Space Studies at Caltech that served as the basis of NASA’s plans. “I’m very confident that, when we finish all our estimates, we’ll be able to come in at half of what the Keck study said,” Lightfoot said at the forum. “That’s what we’re shooting for.”

Congressional skepticism persists

While NASA laid out its plans for the BAA and the overall asteroid mission studies last week, members of Congress held hearings on the administration’s 2015 budget proposals, which include $133 million for NASA’s asteroid initiatives. Some members of Congress who were skeptical last year of the ARM appeared no less skeptical last week.

“They still don’t have a budget, they still don’t have an asteroid, and they still don’t have a launch date. That doesn’t sound to me like a very serious program,” said Smith.

“The White House’s proposed Asteroid Retrieval Mission is a mission without a budget, without a destination, and without a launch date,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science Committee, in his opening statement March 26 in a hearing on the administration’s overall budget proposal for science agencies. Smith said he preferred a “certain, near-term, realizable goal” for human spaceflight, in particular the Mars 2021 mission flyby concept proposed by Inspiration Mars that was the subject of a hearing by the same committee in February (see “Mars 2021 and the quest for direction in human spaceflight”, The Space Review, March 3, 2014).

Later, in the question-and-answer session with Office of Science and Technology Policy director John Holdren, Smith brought up again NASA’s asteroid plans, citing the late 2012 report by the National Academies that concluded there was little support for NASA’s plans for sending humans to a near Earth asteroid by 2025 (a report completed before NASA announced the ARM concept), as well as criticism of the ARM itself by the NASA Advisory Council last year. “The asteroid mission has been reformulated and better explained” since the National Academies report, Holdren argued, “and now has strong buy-in.”

Smith was not convinced, cutting Holdren off. “They still don’t have a budget, they still don’t have an asteroid, and they still don’t have a launch date. That doesn’t sound to me like a very serious program.”

At a hearing by the committee’s space subcommittee the next day about the NASA budget, with NASA administrator Bolden testifying, Smith again brought up the ARM, raising doubts about its relevance to long-term space exploration and asking if NASA was formally studying the Mars 2021 flyby mission concept. Bolden said NASA was reviewing the Inspiration Mars mission concept report, but not doing anything more formal.

Smith also mentioned comments made at a hearing last year by the committee’s space subcommittee, where NASA Advisory Council chairman Steve Squyres questioned the relevance of the ARM towards supporting NASA’s long-term Mars exploration plans. “I personally don’t see a strong connection between the proposed asteroid retrieval mission and sending humans to Mars,” Squyres said at the time, adding, though, that “I believe that NASA should at least be given the opportunity to try and make that case.” (see “Redirecting an asteroid mission”, The Space Review, June 24, 2013)

“I think if you talked to Steve Squyres today, because of where we are, the maturity—” Bolden started to respond to Smith at Thursday’s hearing.

“I don’t doubt you could put political pressure on him,” Smith interjected, something that Bolden denied. “As far as I’m concerned, his testimony before the committee stands,” Smith concluded.

“It’s on our plate during this budget cycle to make sure we inform all our stakeholders of what we’re trying to do here,” Lightfoot said. “It’s our job to get the story told better.”

Earlier this month, it appeared that one previous congressional critic of the ARM had undergone a change of heart. Speaking at the Maryland Space Business Roundtable on March 18, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), ranking member of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee, said that after hearing Bolden give a “riveting” description of the ARM concept to students, she texted him, saying she was “mesmerized” by that description was now a supporter of it, Space News reported.

However, at the NASA budget hearing, she walked back some of those comments. “While I paid the NASA administrator a compliment for his passionate and lucid explanation of the Asteroid Redirect Mission to a group of students recently,” she said in her opening remarks, “I continue to have questions about this potential mission and how it would contribute relative to other potential missions to enable the goal of sending humans to the surface of Mars.”

Asked about Smith’s comments after Wednesday’s asteroid forum, Lightfoot acknowledged it was up to NASA to better explain the asteroid initiative to members of Congress and others. “It’s on our plate during this budget cycle to make sure we inform all our stakeholders of what we’re trying to do here,” he said, describing the ARM as the “next smart step” towards the long-term goal of human missions to Mars. “It’s our job to get the story told better.”

The challenges of getting “the story told better” to members of Congress who want more details about the mission—details that many not be available until the Mission Concept Review is held early next year, likely after Congress completes its fiscal year 2015 spending bills—may end up being as difficult as the challenges of capture mechanisms and rendezvous sensors NASA is trying to address with its current solicitation.