WASHINGTON — The first half of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission, finding a small asteroid and hauling it back to a lunar storage orbit with a new robotic spacecraft, should cost about $1.25 billion, according to a top NASA official.

“That’s what we’re shooting for,” NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot, the agency’s top-ranked civil servant, said during a March 26 Asteroid Initiative Opportunities Forum here. NASA used the forum to brief industry about a March 21 solicitation that would spread $6 million among 20 to 25 companies to study key aspects of the proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission, most of which center around the new robotic spacecraft needed to carry it out.

Proposals are due May 5, with awards for the six-month, fixed-price contracts expected July 1. The key deliverable is paper: a report due to NASA by December. The competition is open to U.S. industry, but participation by NASA field centers is barred.

After his prepared remarks, Lightfoot told reporters that some of the $1.25 billion needed for what the agency is now calling the Asteroid Redirect Vehicle would be new spending. He declined to say exactly how much — or when the agency would seek this money in a formal budget request — but he did say the estimate does not include the price of a launch. 

NASA developed its Asteroid Redirect Mission from a concept created at the Keck Institute for Space Studies at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif. Keck pegged mission costs at about $2.5 billion, and NASA is now “very confident that we’re going to come in at roughly half of what the Keck study said,” Lightfoot said in his presentation at the March 26 forum.

Part of the reason, Lightfoot said, is that the Asteroid Redirect Mission utilizes technology and hardware NASA is already working on, most notably the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket and Orion deep-space crew capsule NASA is spending about $3 billion a year to build at Congress’ direction.

Capturing an asteroid is the first step in NASA’s plan to eventually use SLS to launch a crewed Orion on a 20-day mission to rendezvous with and asteroid and collect samples.

The price of the crewed Orion-SLS launch was not part of Lightfoot’s estimate. Those government-designed vehicles, which are still under construction, are set to fly their first crewed mission in 2021 following an uncrewed demonstration in 2017. A crewed visit to the asteroid would notionally launch by 2025 — the date by which U.S. President Barack Obama has challenged NASA to send astronauts to one of the solar system’s many orbiting space rocks.

NASA still has not formally committed to the Asteroid Redirect Mission, but some of the $133 million NASA is seeking in its 2015 budget request would go toward the spacecraft’s capture mechanism, according to budget documents.

NASA is weighing two competing asteroid-capture mechanisms: a deployable bag conceived by engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena for the Keck concept, and a suite of robotic arms tipped with novel tools derived from an on-orbit satellite-servicing project NASA’s Greenbelt, Md.-based Goddard Space Flight Center sent to the international space station in 2011.

Lightfoot said NASA will choose one of the two methods as part of a mission concept review scheduled for February. In the meantime, about $2 million of the $6 million available under the just-released Asteroid Redirect Mission solicitation is set aside for companies to study capture mechanisms of their choosing.

Other funding within the $133 million NASA’s 2015 budget request includes for Asteroid Redirect Mission-related technology would go toward advanced solar-electric propulsion systems. 

That, Lightfoot said, is all part of NASA’s plan to keep the asteroid mission in the cost box by folding as many “pieces that are already in our budget” into project as possible.

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Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...