Op-ed | 10 Reasons Why an Asteroid Redirect Mission Is Worth Doing

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Full Disclosure: My space startup, Altius Space Machines, is being paid under the Asteroid Redirect Mission Broad Agency Announcement to do a study contract on one possible way to do the Option B mission. Even though we’re not dependent on follow-on work, I figured it was worth stating my potential biases — Jonathan Goff


I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a major NASA program as nearly universally disliked as the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).

Some people dislike it for ad hominem reasons like the fact that the Obama administration has been pushing it, or the supposition that former Deputy Administrator Lori Garver came up with the concept, which some people narrow-mindedly feel automatically justifies opposition.

Orion EFT1 recovery
Recovery team members in rigid-hulled inflatable boats approach NASA’s Orion spacecraft following its splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. Credit: U.S. Navy

I’ve also heard a few anti-Space Launch System/Orion people refer to it as a “wasteful attempt to re-engineer the solar system to make it accessible for SLS and Orion,” or to come up with a mission for SLS and Orion that is more inspiring than endless Apollo 8 rehashes (but without imminent landing missions to follow this time around).

Some scientists seem to hate it because they see it coming from the human spaceflight side of NASA, and think the whole thing could be done better without humans involved.
All told, lots of people have found reasons to hate this mission.

But here are 10 reasons why a mission like ARM might be worthwhile:

1. Adding a new, even more accessible “moon” to the Earth-moon system. A lot of people fixate on the fact that we’re going to spend all of this money for a couple of astronauts to go out to a rock in lunar orbit, climb over it for a few days, and bring some samples back. What they conveniently ignore is that more than 99.5 percent of the material brought back to the Earth-moon system will still be there, orbiting the moon for the next several hundred years, in a fashion that is easily revisitable for a long time.

2. Providing an ideal testbed for asteroid in situ resource utilization (ISRU) development. Many people see asteroids as the premier source of vast quantities of off-world resources. But while there is no shortage of low-technology-readiness-level concepts for how to extract resources from asteroids, actually testing those out isn’t going to be easy. I think testing will be much easier when you have the ability to send people and robots, when you’re close enough to Earth that teleoperation of robotics is a viable option, when you have frequent repeat visit opportunities where you can try new approaches, and when you can do your testing in a microgravity or near-microgravity environment, like you would have at an asteroid. Prospective asteroid miners like Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources probably wouldn’t complain about having one or more easy-to-access testbeds to work with.

3. Providing a much larger sample quantity to work with than other existing or proposed missions. While scientists may be happy spending $800 million to return 60 grams of material from an asteroid (Osiris-Rex) and can likely tease out all sorts of information from that two tablespoons’ worth of material, ISRU development needs a lot more material to work with. Even the smallest of concepts I’ve seen for Option B (in which a robotic spacecraft would grab a boulder from an asteroid and move it into lunar orbit) would bring back tens of metric tons of material, both rocky and regolith, which should be plenty of material to work with for ISRU development.

4. Providing a good way of testing out a man-tended deep-space habitat. One of the ideas NASA is looking at incorporating into ARM is attaching a prototype deep-space habitat. This would allow visits of up to 60-day duration by crews of up to four. While there are other ways you could test something like this (such as Lagrangian point L1/L2 gateways), testing it in an operational environment would be useful, as would demonstrating the ability to do long-term habitation in close proximity to an asteroid.

5. Demonstrating large-scale solar electric propulsion (SEP) systems. This is one of NASA’s main interests in the ARM mission — in the land of expensive launch vehicles, very high specific impulse propulsion, like you can get with SEPs, can make many missions a lot more affordable. Even with low-cost Earth-to-orbit transportation, SEPs probably make sense for a wide range of missions. Demonstrating the ability to use large-scale SEPs for tugging huge objects in heliocentric space, performing precision injection maneuvers, etc., might be very useful.

6. Demonstrating planetary defense techniques. If something similar to ARM Option B is selected, NASA is interested in using it to demonstrate the “gravity tractor” method for deflecting the parent asteroid. Learning how to deflect potentially hazardous asteroids is probably one of the more worthwhile things NASA could be spending money on right now, and providing a way of getting real hands-on experience applying those techniques would be very useful.

7. Developing technologies for a Phobos/Deimos large sample return. One of the keys to affordable exploration and settlement of Mars will be determining if Phobos and/or Deimos have water in them, and if so, how to extract it efficiently. Having a large source of propellant feedstocks available in Mars orbit (for supersonic retropropulsion on landing, hydrogen feedstock for surface ISRU, and Earth-return propellant) could significantly reduce the amount of propellant needed for both round-trip and one-way Mars missions. If Option B is selected, and if it is designed properly, it would be possible to use the same hardware to capture and return a decent-sized sample — more than 1 metric ton — to lunar distant retrograde orbit (DRO) for evaluation and hopefully ISRU process development/debugging.

8. Providing the beginnings of a lunar gateway. It turns out that getting to and from lunar DRO, and to the lunar surface from a lunar DRO, isn’t massively different from getting to and from Earth-moon L1 or L2. The orbital dynamics are a bit more complex but the propellant and travel times are relatively similar. And some lunar DROs can be long-term stable without active station-keeping. If we were ready to go straight to the moon, L1 or L2 might be slightly preferable to a lunar DRO as a location for a lunar gateway, but if we did something like ARM, with the habitat module, you’d already have a de facto start to a lunar gateway — one that likely would be set up (by NASA or follow-on efforts) with ISRU hardware and include at least rudimentary rocket fuel storage and handling capabilities.

Mosaic of the first two images showing Rosetta's lander Philae safely on the surface of Comet 67P. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA

9. Providing more experience with on-asteroid operations. If the Rosetta/Philae mission should tell us anything, it’s that there’s still a lot to learn, from an engineering standpoint, about how to operate successfully on the surface of large, low-gravity objects like asteroids or comets. While we’ll continue to get some small-scale experience using other robotic missions, and while a manned mission to a “free-range” asteroid will also provide a good way to get more data, ARM will likely extend our knowledge about how to do operations like these safely with large objects, increasing the likelihood of success of future manned missions to free-range asteroids.

10. Leaving something permanent. One of the saddest things about the Apollo missions is that they didn’t leave anything permanent that made future missions any easier. When Apollo was canceled, all that was left were museum pieces, pictures and a few hundred kilograms of rocks. But the nice thing about ARM is that once the asteroid sample has returned to lunar DRO, it’s there. It doesn’t require continued expenditures from NASA for it to stay there. Until we’ve mined every last bit of it, it’s going to be there orbiting the moon, close enough that almost any spacefaring country or business in the world can reach it if they want to. It doesn’t need an ongoing “standing army” that can be defunded. It doesn’t need a mission control to watch over it 24/7. It doesn’t need a sustaining engineering contract that’s going to suck up significant portions of NASA’s limited human spaceflight budget on an ongoing basis. It’s just there. Having something that accessible and permanent out there is worth something, at least to me.

Jonathan Goff is president and chief executive of Altius Space Machines.