NASA: Asteroid mission starts with a marriage of rocks, styrofoam and plywood

NASA moves forward with Asteroid Redirect Mission

NASA: Asteroid mission starts with a marriage of rocks, styrofoam and plywood

Robotically grabbing hunks of asteroid in deep space is no trivial task so it would be nice to practice the mission beforehand.

That’s the goal with a mock-up asteroid NASA and the University of West Virginia recently built from rock, styrofoam, plywood and an aluminum endoskeleton. The mock-up is in preparation for NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) which will send a spacecraft to rendezvous with a target asteroid, land a robotic spacecraft on the surface, grab a 4 meter or so sized boulder and begin a six-year journey to redirect the boulder into orbit around the moon for exploration by astronauts.

+More on network World: How to protect Earth from asteroid destruction; Quick look: NASA’s ambitious asteroid grabbing mission+

Located in the center’s Robotic Operations Center at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, the mockup helps engineers understand the intricate operations required to collect a multi-ton boulder from an asteroid’s surface. The hardware involved here includes three space frame legs with foot pads, two seven degrees of freedom arms that have with microspine gripper “hands” to grasp onto the boulder, the space agency said.

With the mock-up system, engineers can use industrial robots, a motion-based platform, and customized algorithms to create simulations of space operations for robotic spacecraft.

“The ROC also allows engineers to simulate robotic satellite servicing operations, fine tuning systems and controllers and optimizing performance factors for future missions when a robotic spacecraft might be deployed to repair or refuel a satellite in orbit,” NASA said.

NASA continues advancing ARM and in September the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory released a request for proposal (RFP) seeking design, development and build of the robotic spacecraft that will capture a multi-ton asteroid boulder from deep space during the first segment of ARM. The RFP was directed Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Space Systems/Loral, Boeing Phantom Works and Orbital ATK all of whom had previously completed conceptual designs of the ARM spacecraft.

“The robotic segment of ARM will demonstrate advanced, high-power, high-throughput solar electric propulsion; advanced autonomous precision proximity operations at a low-gravity planetary body; and controlled touchdown and liftoff with a multi-ton mass,” NASA said.

NASA last year said it has so far identified three valid asteroid candidates for the mission: Itokawa, Bennu and 2008 EV5, though it is focusing on the 2008EV 5 asteroid for now. NASA said EV5 has a number of attractive qualities, namely it not been visited by other spacecraft missions, it has been extensively observed, its orbit is well known and it is a carbonaceous asteroid – the most common type of asteroid and contains a number of elements scientists are interested in studying up close.

After collecting a multi-ton boulder from the asteroid, the robotic spacecraft will redirect the boulder to a crew-accessible orbit around the moon, where NASA plans to conduct a series of proving ground missions in the 2020s that the space agency says will act as a stepping stone to its planed flight to Mars.

In addition to the asteroid research, NASA expects the ARM spacecraft to be powered by Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP), a system that converts sunlight to electrical power through solar arrays and then uses the resulting power to propel charged atoms to move a spacecraft.

NASA says this propulsion system can move massive cargo very efficiently. While slower than conventional chemical rocket propulsion, SEP-powered spacecraft require significantly less propellant and fewer launches to support human exploration missions, which could reduce costs.

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