NASA Goes With 'Option B' for Future Asteroid Redirect Mission

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

Asteroids are getting a lot of attention, today in particular, because asteroid 2014 YB35 will be coming within 0.03 Astronomical Units (AU) of Earth. There is no reason to be alarmed, as this is a natural occurrence within our Solar System, and NASA is hard at work discovering these Near Earth Objects, or NEOs. Since NASA launched its Asteroid Initiative three years ago, the agency has identified more than 12,000 asteroids, with about 96 percent measuring over 0.6 miles (1 km) in length. None of these objects pose a threat to our home planet; however, they do offer the chance to study these massive space rocks for future deep space missions and deflection techniques if one should threaten Earth. NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) is currently under development with plans to send a robotic spacecraft to a near-Earth asteroid for a rendezvous and capture mission. The agency originally had an ambitious plan to rendezvous with an asteroid, capture it, and bring it into lunar orbit for exploration by astronauts.

However, on Wednesday, March 25, NASA announced plans to move forward instead with the Robotic Boulder Capture Option (also known as “Option B”) under the ARM. Following Option B, a robotic spacecraft will pluck a boulder from the surface of a near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) and move it into a stable orbit around our Moon. Once the boulder is in stable lunar orbit, astronauts will launch off the agency’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and navigate to the orbiting mass aboard the Orion spacecraft. NASA expects this to happen in the mid-2020s, and currently plans for a two-astronaut crew to carry out the mission in a 24-25 day time period.

Following Option B, a robotic spacecraft will pluck a boulder from the surface of a near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) and move it into a stable orbit around our moon. Photo credit: NASA/AMA, inc.

Following Option B, a robotic spacecraft will pluck a boulder from the surface of a near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) and move it into a stable orbit around the moon.
Photo credit: NASA/AMA, inc.

“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,” explained NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot. “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.”

previous AmericaSpace article noted that a decision regarding ARM was to be made in January prior to a Mission Concept Review (MCR) scheduled for February 2015, with only the selected option presenting, but Lightfoot delayed the decision in order to gain a better understanding of some of the issues.

The rejected option, Option A, involves sending a “probe out to capture a small asteroid and tow it back to orbit using an inflatable system.” Both options involve redirecting an asteroid mass into a stable orbit around the Moon.

The Robotic Boulder Capture Option, or Option B, has three primary objectives:

  • Return a boulder from the surface of a large Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) to a stable lunar orbit
  • Alter the trajectory of an asteroid of potentially hazardous size (~100+ m diameter)
  • Mature key technologies and operations in human-class Mars mission environment

At this time, the agency has a few asteroids in mind for selection but won’t announce the specific asteroid until 2019, about one year before the robotic spacecraft is due to launch. NASA expects to identify up to two prospective asteroids per year until then. Characteristics such as size, rotation, shape, and orbit matter when choosing a valid candidate asteroid. So far, the agency has three candidates for the mission: Itokawa, Bennu, and 2008 EV5.

Option B has identified asteroid candidates based on target availability and boulder size and mass. Asteroid Itokawa is a “valid candidate with hundreds of candidate boulders.” Bennu and 1999 JU3 are “two candidates planned to be characterized by precursors in 2018” by OSIRIS-Rex (Bennu) and Hayabusa 2 (1999 JU3). There is one candidate, 2008 EV5, characterized by radar at ~6000 SNR. Option B plans on at least two more candidates being “sufficiently characterized by radar during the next 4 years: 2011 UW158 and 2009 DL46.” According to the July 2014 presentation on Boulder Size and Mass for June 2019 Launch and February – May 2025 Crew Availability, it was determined that “spherical maximum returnable boulder size ranges from 1.5 m to 4 m enabling a large range of boulder size for retrieval.”

The Hayabusa spacecraft, developed by Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, known as JAXA, landed on the surface of the asteroid in November 2005 and collected samples to return to Earth in June 2010. The mission confirmed that there were thousands of 2-5 meter boulders existing on the surface of the asteroid and around 20 percent of the surface contains smooth areas with few hazards and wide access to target boulders. Boulders are commonly found on NEAs and are believed to be created by impacts.

The JAXA Hayabusa mission to asteroid Itokawa launched on May 2003, rendevouzed in September 2005, and landed on the asteroid two months later. The mission confirmed that asteroid Itokawa had a boulder rich surface. Photo Credit: JAXA

The JAXA Hayabusa mission to asteroid Itokawa launched on May 2003, rendevouzed in September 2005, and landed on the asteroid two months later. The mission confirmed that asteroid Itokawa had a boulder rich surface. Photo Credit: JAXA

When NASA decides on a suitable target, the uncrewed ARM spacecraft will travel to the target asteroid, rendezvous with it, and deploy robotic arms to pluck a boulder from the surface. According to NASA, it will take nearly six years for the robotic spacecraft to move the mass into the Moon’s orbit, known as distant retrograde orbit.

The ARM robotic spacecraft will explore a number of abilities needed for future human missions to space, including a new method of propulsion known as Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP). This new method converts sunlight to electrical power through the use of solar arrays and uses that power to thrust charged atoms to push a spacecraft. This method can move massive cargo very efficiently but moves slower than conventional chemical rocket propulsion. On the flip side, one of the benefits of using a SEP-powered spacecraft is that it requires less propellant and fewer launches to support human exploration and deep space missions. The use of SEP propulsion could significantly reduce costs.

Another ability the ARM spacecraft will test before the asteroid is moved to lunar orbit is planetary defense techniques to aid in deflecting a potential asteroid impact, if one should threaten Earth. There is no threat of an asteroid impacting our home planet for the next century, but in case it does become a possibility, NASA will have the technology to move an asteroid off a collision course with Earth.

“Asteroids are a hot topic,” said Jim Green, director of NASA Planetary Science. “Not just because they could pose a threat to Earth, but also for their scientific value and NASA’s planned mission to one as a stepping stone to Mars.”

The crewed mission to study an asteroid mass in lunar orbit will test many capabilities needed to send humans on deep space missions to Mars and beyond. Some of these include news sensor technologies and a docking system that will attach Orion to the ARM spacecraft carrying the boulder. Astronauts will conduct EVAs, or spacewalks, outside the Orion crew capsule to study and collect samples of the asteroid. They will also wear and test out new spacesuits designed for human exploration in deep space.

Samples collected from the orbiting mass will help astronauts and mission managers determine the best techniques for securing and safely returning samples from future Mars missions. The samples may also provide important data for research or commercial entities interested in mining asteroids for resources.


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18 comments to NASA Goes With ‘Option B’ for Future Asteroid Redirect Mission

  • AEG

    It’s gone from an ambitious scientific mission to bureaucratic busy work and tech demonstration. This might as well have a giant bulls-eye on it for cancellation 1-2 years down the road.

  • Tracy the Troll

    Didn’t you realize that this project is the proof of concept for Planetary Resources space mining business model…funded by the US taxpayer? Did you think these people would use their own money?

    • Joe

      Be careful Tracy, or you will become a cynic.

      • Tracy the Troll

        Ok …your right…Perhaps they only way the technology advances is with government funds which I am Ok with …I just think with NASA always being in a budget crises that perhaps companies that utilize NASA tech should have to pay a small royalty fee for every mission they engage in… Bigelow only paid $2M for their Space station tech that is on the verge of becoming the standard in the industry… NASA is truly turning into the R&D arm of the New Space Private Sector without any return to the Tax Payer..LM and Boeing are at the top of this list..IMO

        • Joe

          While it is certainly true “LM and Boeing are at the top of this list” in terms of total government money received, I would not count on that being true in comparing government money received as a percentage of total revenue.

          Boeing for instance has a large commercial aircraft sector. When I worked there a running joke was that their space business (NASA and Military)was a hobby.

          Besides the New Space “Private Sector” seems (their protestation to the contrary not withstanding) to be on a very steep learning curve as to how to get more government largess.

    • John hare

      They should use their own money if they want the data for private uses.

  • Karol

    If my real but unstated interest was dealing a severe blow to a still widely popular NASA, I wouldn’t risk public and Congressional anger with a direct frontal assault, rather I would create a vague mission with mixed support at best in the scientific community and little public enthusiasm. Nothing says irrelevant, out-of-touch, wasteful, and “please de-fund NASA” quite as effectively as being sent on a fools errand.

    • John hare

      This a succinct observation of my problem with SLS. Without continuing support, it is all too likely to join Aries, Venturestar and company in the bin of canceled programs. Support can evaporate at the whims of congress.

      • Joe

        Nice attempted pivot to yet another attack on the SLS.

        But the SLS is not a mission (“vague” or otherwise) it is instead a tool that can be used to achieve a real mission should NASA ever have one again.

        I understand you would prefer the use of other tools to the elimination of the SLS. It’s a free country and you have the right to that opinion, but it has nothing to do with the current subject.

        Without a real mission there will be no political support for your preferred exploration architectures either.

        • john hare

          The current subject being the asteroid mission, the SLS is the subject as they are co-partnered, just as Shuttle, then commercial cargo and now commercial crew is with ISS. Without the asteroid mission, the SLS has no justification, just as without ISS, commercial crew has no justification. That they may or may not have use down the road has little to do with the current discussion.

          Real missions should be paid for by the entities that want them. My preferred architecture is that the customer pays or doesn’t fly. Political support is for national advantage and shouldn’t be for architectures that cannot justify themselves.

          Fully funding or eliminating SLS has little to do with my preferred architectures. Exploration and exploitation will come when it can pay its’ own way politically or financially.

          • Joe

            “Real missions should be paid for by the entities that want them. My preferred architecture is that the customer pays or doesn’t fly. Political support is for national advantage and shouldn’t be for architectures that cannot justify themselves.”

            By that logic the ISS program should have financed COTS and now be paying for both CRS and Commercial Crew. If that were the case, none of those programs would exist.

            This is still deflecting the discussion from the lack of a viable mission to whether or not you like the SLS.

            If your position is that because the current administration will not provide a viable goal for HSF, the HSF program should be entirely (meaning “commercial” as well)defunded, why not just say so?

            • john hare

              I wouldn’t have a problem with COTS, CRS, and Commercial Crew not existing. I think the players involved there are playing the crony capitalism game at increasing levels as time goes on. What started as fairly innocent is becoming an embarrassment to those of us that believe in the value of free enterprise.

              I don’t think my dislike for SLS has any effect on the program. The HSF program should be defunded (including commercial)if it cannot justify its’ existence on a reasonable playing field. There is little national prestige in programs that go in fits, stops, and starts toward some murky future that is at risk every time the political winds change. I find the current situation embarrassing as well.

              If there were serious national goals that required manned spaceflight, ULA, properly motivated, could have had a qualified capsule on one of the EELVs before the Shuttle was retired as they would have had 7 years to do it. If there were serious national goals that required heavy lift, Shuttle SRBs could have been mated to a stretched Delta IV Heavy to put north of 100 tons in orbit years ago. There are numerous other architectures that could work in a serious program.

              I think once again we are probably more in agreement than disagreement once we define our discussion.

              • Joe

                Hi John,

                You seem to have now extended your “get rid of it, if it cannot be justified by current policy” position to include practically everything else on the table and that is fine. While I disagree with that position, it is at least consistent.

                For just one more pass, if that policy were followed (and it may be), by the time we get a new administration (assuming they have the slightest interest)there will have been so much basic capability destroyed that it is unlikely that the capability will ever be reestablished.

                That is, I think, the point of Karol’s original post. If you would like to take up that point, that is:
                (1) Do you think the Asteroid mission is (as described)viable?
                (2) If the answer to(1) is no, what do you think would be a viable alternative?

                That would be interesting (as you seem to have given the subject some thought).

                If not, then sincerely (no offense intended) – Have a nice day.

                • john hare

                  Afternoon Joe,
                  For your second paragraph, I disagree that real capability would be destroyed as I don’t see real capability being developed at the moment. Real capability can be developed in short time frames if real capability is desired and needed. Re Mercury-Gemini-Apollo-Shuttle in a total time period similar to Orions’ first start under Bush to mission capable.

                  1. Mission viable yes, national usefulness viable no.
                  2. Inspiration missions require shorter time frames.

                  2a. Viable alternatives include prepositioned propellant depots. Pay the propellant providers ‘after’ they deliver enough propellant for whatever mission. Your vehicle achieves orbit and docks/berths with the depot and then refuels the upper stage that got them there. Any of the purported manned vehicles available could then fly to any destination in cislunar space. Do not pay for development or allow the propellant depots into the critical paths, i.e. no propellant flights to missions in progress.

                  2b. Longer range missions could use empty propellant tanks for living volume. No expensive equipment in the allowed in the tanks and no obstructions allowed in the hatches. Don’t pay big bucks for volume when volume is being discarded.

                  2c. Get the costs and mission lead times down to explore all the targets of interest, not just my preference. This can be done by paying for performance rather than effort. “Your vehicle is Lunar capable, fine you and your board of directors can fly it around the moon Apollo 8 style as proof, then we buy it.

                  2d. Forget my mission preference and focus on getting the capability to do yours.

                  I have written extensively on concepts for technical capabilities elsewhere. You don’t want a list, my latest is on a hybrid technique for getting 750+ Isp with tether-LH2/LO2-nuclear. I believe strongly in letting bad concepts (especially mine)die to make room for viable alternatives. That is the key problem with putting all the eggs in one basket.

                  • Joe

                    I think your belief that capabilities can be easily recreated is (in the current environment) misplaced.

                    Kennedy had a backlog of “black” military programs to draw on and the amount of spending from 1961 to 1967 was enormous (when adjusted for inflation) by current standards.

                    To expect such expenditures to be repeated for rebuilding the capabilities currently being destroyed is (just call it) optimistic.

                    The rest of your proposals are interesting, but it should be noted that most studies of propellant depots play a sort of shell game in comparisons with using HLVs, that is:
                    (1) The cost of developing (any configuration) HLV is listed at the highest cost possible.
                    (2) The cost of actually designing, developing, testing and deploying a propellant depot system is tacitly assumed to be zero.

                    I have nothing against propellant depots (in fact believe they will eventually be essential).

                    However,as a kid, when I bought my first car a loan officer (for the car dealer) tried the same thing. Kept trying to prove that it would be cheaper to take out a loan than pay cash by leaving out the down payment on that side of the ledger.

                    Did not buy it then, do not buy it now.

                    • john hare

                      If you find yourself in the central Florida (Winter Haven)area sometime and in need of an argument, I’ll buy dinner.

                      I believe you and I are often talking at cross purposes due to all the crap people have posted before. Frex, the propellant depot I suggested would be zero cost up front to the mission as it should be placed and stocked by others before the mission launched. Total costs to the mission is propellant purchase and orbital maneuvering. No down the road costs as it is not your problem and doesn’t prevent you from developing your HLV.

                      I think we have chased this dog around the house enough times, so you can have the last word.

                    • Joe

                      “I think we have chased this dog around the house enough times, so you can have the last word.”

                      Agreed, but I will take the last word in (I hope) the most friendly manner possible.

                      My point about the propellant depot costing relates back to Karol’s original point about the goal.

                      Such depots have been talked about for decades (dating back – at least – to Project Horizon in the 1950s), but no detailed design/research work has ever been done.

                      While I have no doubt they can be made practical, it is going to cost billions.

                      Absent an agreed upon specific goal that requires them, they are less likely to get funding than SLS is to continue getting funding (if for no other reason than inertia).

                      “If you find yourself in the central Florida (Winter Haven)area sometime and in need of an argument, I’ll buy dinner.”

                      Consider the same offer open to you, if you ever find yourself near Clear Lake, Texas.

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