The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has revealed more details about its Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), which has an operation planned for the mid-2020s.
The mission calls for a robotic spacecraft to capture a boulder from the surface of a near-Earth asteroid and move it into a stable orbit around the moon for later exploration by astronauts. Not only will the operation show the feasibility of capturing and moving an asteroid, it will also demonstrate the capability of sending astronauts into deep space and to Mars.
The plan calls for NASA to select a specific asteroid for the mission by 2019, about a year before the launch of the robotic spacecraft. Before selection scientists will determine the asteroid’s characteristics, size, rotation, shape, and orbit. So far NASA has identified three possible candidates for the mission -– Itokawa, Bennu, and 2008 EV5. The agency has said that it will identify one or two more candidates each year leading up to the mission.
After the rendezvous with the target asteroid, the unmanned ARM spacecraft will deploy robotic arms to capture a boulder from the asteroid’s surface. The boulder will then be redirected into an orbit around the moon. The process is expected to take six years.
Besides towing the boulder to a moon orbit, the ARM robotic spacecraft will also test a number of capabilities needed for future human missions into deep space. This will include advanced Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP), which is technology that converts sunlight to electrical power through solar arrays and uses that power to propel charged atoms to move a spacecraft. Although slower than conventional chemical rocket propulsion, this method can move massive cargo very efficiently and requires significantly less propellant and fewer launches in a manned mission. It will also help to reduce the cost of the operation.
According to NASA, future spacecraft powered in this manner could pre-position cargo or vehicles for future manned missions into deep space.
In addition, the ARM’s SEP-powered robotic spacecraft will test new trajectory and navigation techniques in deep space and work with the moon’s gravity to place the asteroid boulder into a stable lunar orbit. This could serve as a staging point for astronauts to rendezvous with as they journey to Mars.
The mission will also provide NASA with the opportunity to test planetary defense techniques to help prevent potential asteroid impact of Earth in the future.
In 2005, NASA performed a deep impact comet science mission that tested technology to assist in changing the course of a near-Earth object using a direct hit with a spacecraft. The ARM robotic spacecraft provides another option for planetary defense.
In the mid-2020s, NASA will launch Orion on a Space Launch System rocket, and carry astronauts to a rendezvous with the asteroid boulder where it will be explored. It is expected that such a mission will take from 24 to 25 days.
This manned mission will also test capabilities needed for a deep space mission to Mars and elsewhere. These capabilities will include new sensor technologies and a docking system that will connect Orion to the robotic spacecraft carrying the asteroid mass. Astronauts will conduct spacewalks, wearing new spacesuits designed for deep space missions, outside Orion and study and collect samples from the asteroid boulder.
Collecting samples will help astronauts and mission managers determine the best methods to secure and safely return samples from Mars. The asteroid samples will also provide data for scientists and commercial entities. This is important because the examination of these remnants will teach us more about the formation of the solar system.
NASA launched the asteroid initiative in 2012 and it has increased the detection of near-Earth Asteroids by 65 percent. More than 12,000 asteroids have been identified.