NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) plans to send a robotic spacecraft to a near-Earth asteroid to pluck a boulder off the surface and move it into a stable orbit around the Moon. After announcing back in March that the agency will move forward with the plan known as “Option B,” the agency is now calling for American Industry ideas on spacecraft development and design. The robotic part of the mission, known as the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM), requires a core advanced solar electric propulsion-based spacecraft to support it, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., is opening up the opportunity to American companies to design the ARRM spacecraft.
The ARM robotic spacecraft is planned to launch in 2020, travel to a large asteroid, and capture a boulder off its surface. Once the boulder is in its possession, the spacecraft will redirect and place it in a stable orbit around the moon known as a “Distant Retrograde Orbit.” Astronauts launched off the Space Launch System (SLS) deep space rocket will travel aboard the Orion spacecraft and explore the orbiting rock.
The mission will also use a variety of important technologies that will help prepare NASA for a future human exploration mission to cis-lunar, the area around the Moon, and deep space. The robotic part of the ARM mission will also provide the first asteroid samples on a large scale, as opposed to the meteorites that are studied in laboratories. These samples will be researched and analyzed to give a more thorough understanding of asteroid nature and composition. This is very important for those interested in the benefits of asteroid mining. Companies like Planetary Resources seek to take advantage of the abundance of potential resources on asteroids because it can boost the economy and make spaceflight more efficient. Parking a large asteroid in a distant retrograde orbit will give the first human and robotic explorers and American commercial enterprises the first opportunity to determine the likelihood of mining asteroids for precious metals and resources. Some of the precious metals and resources include ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, osmium, iridium, platinum, iron, nickel, cobalt, and more.
NASA is developing the technology to deflect asteroids, too, as many of them fly by Earth almost daily and some go undetected. ARM elaborates on the agency’s ability to find, characterize, and alleviate the life-threatening danger asteroids pose to Earth. While the spacecraft is at the large asteroid, it will demonstrate a “slow-push” planetary defense maneuver. This deflection technique uses the ARRM spacecraft and the boulder’s gravitational pull to put the asteroid on a different course. The top priority for ARM, however, is to efficiently demonstrate and verify new capabilities necessary for future manned missions to Mars and deep space.
“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 spacecraft will have to be able to perform a number of technology demonstrations that are necessary for a human exploration mission to Mars. This includes a “20-fold improvement in state-of-the-art deep space solar electric propulsion capability to move and maneuver multi-ton objects.” The robotic portion of ARM has the objective to collect a multi-ton mass from a significantly sized asteroid and redirect it to an orbit around the Moon that could be accessed by a crew. This sets the stage for future crewed and robotic vehicle missions in deep space.
The ARRM spacecraft must be able to demonstrate high power solar electric propulsion (SEP). This advanced SEP technology is critical for sending larger payloads, habitats, and propellant into deep space and to Mars ahead of a human mission. Traditional chemical propulsion creates thrust by using combustion and a nozzle; on the contrary, SEP utilizes electricity from solar arrays to make electromagnetic fields to speed up and eject charged atoms, or ions, to build a small thrust with an efficient use of rocket propellant. The ARM mission uses nearly five to 10 times less rocket propellant, when compared with chemical propellant sources, because of the advanced SEP technology. The solar arrays must have the initial power of approximately 50 kW. The capture system aboard the ARRM spacecraft must be capable of collecting a 20 ton (or larger) boulder of no more than 19 feet (six meters) wide from the surface of an asteroid and place it in a fixed orbit around the Moon where astronauts can easily travel to it. The ARRM spacecraft is being designed to work with a number of launch vehicles, such as NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, or a launch vehicle provided by a commercial company. It will test the largest and most powerful SEP system ever used for space missions. It will also test how NASA’s Orion spacecraft can dock with and operate with a SEP-powered spacecraft. The robotic asteroid-capturing spacecraft must be ready to launch by the end of the decade.
ARM is an important step in preparing NASA for the journey to Mars. The mission to pluck a heavy boulder off the surface of an asteroid and park it in the Moon’s orbit brings together the best of NASA’s abilities. NASA’s science, technology, and human exploration efforts will come together to achieve many important goals that are critical to the journey to the Red Planet.
Some of the technologies to be tested on ARM before the mission to Mars are: solar electric propulsion, trajectory and navigation, advances in spacesuits, sample collection and containment techniques, rendezvous and docking capabilities, and developing the building blocks for exploration.
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