Friday, December 19, 2014

NASA Delays Asteroid Redirect Mission Concept Selection

This concept image shows an astronaut preparing to take samples from the captured asteroid after it has been relocated to a stable orbit in the Earth-moon system. Hundreds of rings are affixed to the asteroid capture bag, helping the astronaut carefully navigate the surface. Credit: NASA

NASA's efforts to capture a near-Earth asteroid and tow it back to the lunar orbit will have to wait a little bit longer for a final mission concept. In a teleconference Wednesday, Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot told reporters he needed more information before he could select one of two options NASA is considering for its Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). The decision is now expected to be made early next year, with a Mission Concept Review, or MCR, scheduled for late February. "While I expected to make a decision today, we really got to the point where I needed to get some more clarification on some areas," Lightfoot said, confirming he met with two teams yesterday to discuss competing ARM concepts. "I've talked to the administrator (Charles Bolden) about it, and he agrees on the areas we need to go look into a little bit, and get a little more detail."

NASA has been working on the ARM concept since the White House announced it in 2013 as part of the FY2014 budget request. The idea is that NASA will send a robotic spacecraft to a small asteroid and redirect it from its native orbit into an orbit around the Moon where astronauts can visit it. The White House decided that such a mission would satisfy President Obama’s 2010 directive that NASA send astronauts to an asteroid as the next U.S. human spaceflight destination.

A variant of that concept emerged where instead of moving all of a small asteroid, the robotic spacecraft would pluck a boulder from a larger asteroid and move the boulder to lunar orbit. The original idea is called Option A and the variant is Option B. NASA has had teams working on identifying the technical challenges associated with the two options with the goal of choosing between them prior to MCR that is scheduled for late February 2015. They want the MCR to focus on a single option.

The baseline mission concept, Option A, involves capturing an entire asteroid or loosely bound rubble pile with a ten-meter inflatable bag. Option B would send a spacecraft to a larger asteroid between 100 and 500 meters wide, where it would pluck a small boulder off the surface.

Lightfoot said Option B, the boulder concept, was more intriguing in terms of advancing future technologies. However, Option B is more complex because it requires the capture vehicle to land on a target asteroid before capturing its boulder. NASA expects both concepts to cost less than $1.25 billion, with Option B requiring an additional $100 million. Those mission costs do not include a launch vehicle. Lightfoot said possible rocket choices include NASA's Space Launch System, a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy, or SpaceX's Falcon Heavy. Launch dates are expected to be evaluated during the Mission Concept Review. A crewed asteroid visit would take place using the NASA's Orion spacecraft, launched via the Space Launch System.

An independent cost estimate is expected to evaluate whether the $1.25 billion ARM budgets are accurate. During today's teleconference, Lightfoot indicated such an assessment might not be made until after one of the options are selected. "We're required to do an independent cost assessment going into the MCR," he said. "And that's one of the reasons we want to limit the options that go into the MCR. That's one of the bigger drivers, because the independent cost assessment takes awhile."

NASA requested $160 million for ARM in FY2015 spread through three of its four Mission Directorates – Science Mission Directorate (SMD), Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) and Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD). It is not a specific line item in the budget. Congress approved a substantial budget increase for NASA overall, but was not specific about ARM. Lightfoot said that NASA received “all we need” for ARM this year.

The FY2015 funding request included $93 million for technology development and Lightfoot said there is enough commonality between the two options that the money can be used efficiently no matter which option is ultimately selected.

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