Asteroid missions face delays and restructuring
WASHINGTON — NASA is delaying contracts and other awards planned for its Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) early this year by a few months, citing uncertainty about the agency’s budget.
The news about the revised ARM schedule, discussed Jan. 11 at a meeting of NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) in Tucson, Arizona, came as backers of a planned European asteroid mission said they were working to scale down their mission after failing to win funding from the European Space Agency.
Michele Gates, program director for ARM at NASA Headquarters, said NASA has delayed the award of a contract for the spacecraft bus for the robotic element of ARM from this March until May. It has also delayed awards of hosted payloads that would fly on the robotic mission, as well as selection of members of an “investigation team” for the mission, from April to June.
Gates said the delay was linked to NASA operating under a continuing resolution (CR) since the beginning of the 2017 fiscal year in October. “As you know, we’ve had an extended CR until April 28, so we’ve had to move our checkpoints” for those awards, she said.
The revised schedule would delay the awards until after either the completion of a full-fledged appropriations bill for 2017 or a decision to extend the CR for the rest of the fiscal year, providing more certainty about the funding available for ARM. The delay does not affect the overall ARM schedule, which still calls for the launch of the robotic mission in 2021.
Gates did not address questions about the long-term future of ARM, a mission frequently criticized by members of Congress and others in the space community. While there is a widespread belief in the industry that ARM is vulnerable to cancellation, the incoming Trump administration has not formally commented about the mission either in campaign statements prior to the election or during the transition process.
The SBAG meeting also discussed the status of the proposed Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM) at ESA. AIM suffered a setback at ESA’s ministerial meeting in December in Switzerland when member nations failed to pledge enough funding to continue its development.
Ian Carnelli, AIM manager at ESA, said at the meeting that AIM needed to secure a minimum of 105 million euros ($112 million) from ESA members in order to continue development until 2019. However, he said that the need to fund operations of the International Space Station kept AIM from reaching that threshold.
“We got to about 70 [million euros], which was very encouraging, before the funding from some major countries were diverted to the ISS,” he said. “I’m glad that ISS was indeed confirmed until 2024. Unfortunately, we had to pay for it.”
AIM, whose full cost is projected to be 250 million euros, is scheduled for launch in 2020 to travel to the asteroid Didymos. It will characterize the asteroid and its small moon, and also observe a collision by a separate NASA spacecraft, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), with that moon. The combined mission is known as the Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA).
Carnelli said that his team is now studying a scaled-down version of AIM, called AIMlight. The spacecraft would still launch in 2020, but be less than half the mass of AIM and use a smaller launch vehicle or fly as a secondary payload. AIMlight would feature a single instrument, a camera, and operate at the asteroid for a shorter period. Its estimated cost would be 150 million euros.
He said the industrial team working on AIM plans to have a proposal ready for the revised AIMlight concept by June. “We’re committed to putting together a rescoped mission and bring this together, and hopefully implement AIDA,” he said.
The uncertainty about AIM does not affect development of DART, however. “Knowing how things go, when the experiments conceived, they were conceived that they could receive their results independently,” said Cheryl Reed of the Applied Physics Laboratory, which is developing DART. She added, though, that the combination of the two would be “so much richer” scientifically. “We hope that ultimately is the case.”