Review of Asteroid Redirect Mission Expected in the Next Month

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GREENBELT, Md. — NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), which has appeared to be in limbo in recent months, should reach a key review within the next month, the head of the agency said March 11.

In comments after his speech at the American Astronautical Society’s Goddard Memorial Symposium here, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said ARM would go through a mission concept review within about a month.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, shown here speaking March 3, 2015 at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, speaking March 3 at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

“You should hear something from us in the month or so,” Bolden said. “We’re just looking through this, making sure we thought of everything.”

ARM got only a passing reference in Bolden’s prepared remark, where he provided a high-level overview of the agency’s various programs that most industry and government attendees were already familiar with.

Bolden did indicate on one occasionally controversial topic — cooperation with China — that he expected no near-term change in policy despite the retirement at the end of last year of Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), the former chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA. Wolf was a staunch opponent of such cooperation.

“It probably won’t happen in my tenure as the NASA administrator, and I think that’s unfortunate,” he said in response to an audience question about prospects of greater cooperation with China in space exploration, citing existing congressional prohibitions on bilateral cooperation. He added he was more optimistic that, eventually, NASA would be able to work more closely with China.

ARMed and Languorous

NASA originally planned to conduct the mission concept review in late February. That schedule, though, assumed that NASA would make a decision between two options for the robotic element of the overall mission in December, giving the team time to incorporate the selected option into planning for the review.

Under one approach, known as Option A, a spacecraft would shift the orbit of a small asteroid, up to ten meters across, into a distant retrograde orbit around the moon. In Option B, a spacecraft would grab a boulder a few meters across from the surface of a larger asteroid and move that into lunar orbit. In both options, a crewed Orion spacecraft would then visit the asteroid.

However, the agency announced Dec. 17 that it postponed that decision after concluding it needed more time to review the two options. NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot told reporters at the time that he expected it would take two to three weeks to conduct additional studies of the two options.

At a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council Jan. 14, Bolden said the agency hoped to make a choice between the two options “soon.” NASA, however, has yet to announce a decision regarding the robotic mission options.

At a briefing to discuss NASA’s 2016 budget request Feb. 2, NASA Chief Financial Officer David Radzanowski said ARM’s mission concept review had slipped to no earlier than late March. That budget request includes $220 million for NASA’s overall asteroid initiative, which includes funding for ARM planning itself, as well as key mission technologies and searches for near Earth objects.

While ARM is still in its early phases, work on the concept has enlightened other aspects of overall human exploration studies. “Already, ARM has shown us, through analysis of where we would fly it and return the asteroid, of the importance of a lunar distant retrograde orbit,” said Greg Williams, NASA deputy associate administrator for human exploration and operations, in a March 11 panel session here.

That orbit, into which the robotic ARM spacecraft will direct the captured asteroid, is prized for both its stability and its low energy requirements. Williams said that orbit could be used as a staging area for future human missions to Mars. “ARM is a stepping stone for moving large masses to and from the Earth system to the martian system,” he said.