NASA setting stage for asteroid mission

Asteroid retrieval mission would use a robotic spacecraft to capture a small near-Earth asteroid and move it near the moon

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NASA today said it will officially begin seeking the company or companies that it will contract with to begin the mission to capture an asteroid and move it near the moon, where it could be studied and perhaps mined.

A Broad Agency Announcement or BAA on the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM)will be published March 21, NASA said. 

"NASA is developing concepts for ARM, which would use a robotic spacecraft to capture a small near-Earth asteroid, or remove a boulder from the surface of a larger asteroid, and redirect the asteroid mass into a stable orbit around the moon. Astronauts aboard the Orion spacecraft launched on the Space Launch System would rendezvous with the asteroid mass in lunar orbit, and collect samples for return to Earth.

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NASA said in order to support mission formulation and reduce risk and cost, the BAA will solicit proposals for studies and related technology development activities in the following areas:

  • Asteroid capture system concepts using deployable structures and autonomous robotic manipulators
  • Rendezvous sensors that can be used for a wide range of mission applications including automated rendezvous and docking, and asteroid characterization and proximity operations
  • Commercial spacecraft design, manufacture, integration, and testing capabilities that could be adapted for development of the Asteroid Redirect Vehicle (ARV) or its main components such as the Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) tug
  • Partnership opportunities for secondary payloads on either the ARV or the Space Launch System (SLS).
  • Partnership opportunities for the Asteroid Redirect Crewed Mission or future missions in areas such as advancing science and in-situ resource utilization, enabling commercial activities, and enhancing U.S. exploration activities in cis-lunar space after the first crewed mission to an asteroid.
  • The duration of the studies is anticipated to be 180 days, with an interim report due in October. NASA may use the data resulting from this effort to inform the Asteroid Redirect Mission Concept Review (MCR), which is planned for late 2014 or early 2015.

An Asteroid Initiative Opportunities Forum will be held at NASA Headquarters on March 26, 2014, The meeting agenda and registration information is posted on the BAA website at http://www.nasa.gov/asteroidinitiative

In February NASA said it was assessing two concepts to robotically capture and redirect an asteroid mass into a stable orbit around the moon. In the first proposed concept, NASA would capture and redirect an entire very small asteroid. In the alternative concept, NASA would retrieve a large, boulder-like mass from a larger asteroid and return it to this same lunar orbit. In both cases, astronauts aboard an Orion spacecraft would then study the redirected asteroid mass in the vicinity of the moon and bring back samples.

Very few known near-Earth objects are ARM candidates. Most known asteroids are too big to be fully captured and have orbits unsuitable for a spacecraft to redirect them into orbit around the moon. Some are so distant when discovered that their size and makeup are difficult for even our most powerful telescopes to discern. Still others could be potential targets, but go from newly discovered to out of range of our telescopes so quickly there is not enough time to observe them adequately, NASA stated.

"There are other elements involved, but if size were the only factor, we'd be looking for an asteroid smaller than about 40 feet (12 meters) across," said Paul Chodas, a senior scientist in the Near-Earth Object Program Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory,  in a statement. "There are hundreds of millions of objects out there in this size range, but they are small and don't reflect a lot of sunlight, so they can be hard to spot. The best time to discover them is when they are brightest, when they are close to Earth."

From NASA: Asteroids are discovered by small, dedicated teams of astronomers using optical telescopes that repeatedly scan the sky looking for star-like objects, which change location in the sky slightly over the course of an hour or so. Asteroid surveys detect hundreds of such moving objects in a single night, but only a fraction of these will turn out to be new discoveries. The coordinates of detected moving objects are passed along to the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Mass., which either identifies each as a previously known object or assigns it a new designation. The observations are collated and then electronically published, along with an estimate of the object's orbit and intrinsic brightness. Automatic systems at NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office at JPL take the Minor Planet Center data, compute refined orbit and brightness estimates, and update its online small-body database. A new screening process for the asteroid redirect mission has been set up which regularly checks the small-body database, looking for potential new candidates for the ARM mission.

"If an asteroid looks as if it could meet the criteria of size and orbit, our automated system sends us an email with the subject "'New ARM Candidate,'" said Chodas. "When that happens, and it has happened several dozen times since we implemented the system in March of 2013, I know we'll have a busy day."

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