NASA Funds 18 Asteroid Retrieval Concepts

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SAN FRANCISCO — NASA is getting some help in mapping out its ambitious asteroid capture mission.

The space agency has awarded a total of $4.9 million to 18 proposals that could advance and flesh out the asteroid retrieval plan, which aims to drag a space rock into orbit around the Moon for future visitation by astronauts, officials announced June 19.

“By investing in these studies, NASA will gain valuable insight into affordable ways to perform the Asteroid Redirect Mission while also advancing technologies needed to drive future exploration missions,” James Reuther, deputy associate administrator for space technology at NASA headquarters in Washington, said in a statement.

NASA received 108 submissions after announcing the request for proposals in March. The selected studies are a diverse lot; some seek to develop asteroid capture systems, while others focus on rendezvous technology or adapting commercial spacecraft to meet the needs of the mission.

One of the winning 18, submitted by the nonprofit Planetary Society, suggests putting hardy Earth microbes on the robotic asteroid capture spacecraft to test how feasible it would be for organisms to travel from planet to planet on or inside rocks blasted into space by a cosmic impact.

The idea is a variant of the Planetary Society’s Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment (LIFE), which aimed to hitch a ride to the Mars moon Phobos and back aboard Russia’s Phobos-Grunt sample-return mission. But LIFE (and Phobos-Grunt) crashed into the Pacific Ocean in January 2012, the victim of a launch failure.

NASA is still figuring out exactly how to pull off the asteroid capture mission. The agency is considering two major options: retrieving an entire small space rock (one less than 10 meters wide), or plucking a boulder off a bigger asteroid.

That initial phase of the mission would employ a robotic probe. But once the rock is in lunar orbit, the agency would send astronauts to visit it using the Orion capsule and Space Launch System mega-rocket, which are scheduled to fly together for the first time in 2021.

The goal is to execute a manned mission to the captured asteroid by 2025. Doing so would meet an exploration goal laid out for NASA by President Barack Obama in 2010. The asteroid retrieval mission also would help develop the technology and techniques required for a manned Mars trip, which is planned by the mid-2030s, agency officials have said.

NASA has committed $4.9 million to fund 18 six-month studies “to mature system concepts and key technologies and assess the feasibility of potential commercial partnerships to support the agency’s Asteroid Redirect Mission.”

 

Four companies will conduct studies for an asteroid capture system: 

  • Airborne Systems North America of Santa Ana, California: The “Asteroid Capture System” study will fabricate and test a proof-of-concept inflatable capture system.
     
  • Jacobs of Houston: The “Asteroid Capture System Conceptual Study” will test a subscale capture system using mechanically deployed booms.
     
  • Altius Space Machines of Louisville, Colorado: The “Kraken Asteroid Boulder Retrieval System” study will test prototype grasping arms and innovative gripper concepts for capturing a boulder off the surface of an asteroid.
     
  • Space Systems/Loral of Palo Alto, California: The “Autonomous Boulder Liberation Equipment” study will demonstrate robotic arms for placement and handling of pneumatic excavation tools, boulder jacking devices, and positive capture and restraint tools.

 

Rendezvous sensors will be the focus of two selected proposals:

  • Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colorado: “Rendezvous Sensor Suite Development” to upgrade a visible camera and lidar developed for Orion to meet Asteroid Redirect Mission automated rendezvous and docking requirements.
     
  • The Boeing Co. of Huntington Beach, California: The “Asteroid Redirect Mission Rendezvous Sensors” activity leverages existing visible and infrared sensors and a 3-D lidar to meet Asteroid Redirect Mission automated rendezvous and docking requirements.
 

Four studies will examine how to adapt commercial spacecraft for the Asteroid Redirect Vehicle:

  • Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co. of Denver: The “Adapting Commercial Spacecraft for the Asteroid Redirect Vehicle” study will define system concepts for a Solar Electric Propulsion Module based on an existing commercial spacecraft bus and NASA Hall thrusters.
     
  • ExoTerra Resource of Littleton, Colorado: The “Multipurpose SEP Module for ARM and Beyond” study will define concepts for an extensible multipurpose Solar Electric Propulsion module designed for launch on Falcon 9.
     
  • The Boeing Co.: The “Adapting Commercial Spacecraft for the Asteroid Redirect Vehicle” study will define and analyze variants of an existing commercial spacecraft with NASA-furnished solar arrays and Hall thrusters.
     
  • Space Systems/Loral: The “Adapting Commercial Spacecraft for the Asteroid Redirect Vehicle” study will define system concepts that leverage an existing high-power commercial satellite bus to reduce costs.

 

Partnerships for secondary payloads will be the focus of five studies:

  • The Planetary Society of Pasadena, California: “LIFE on ARM: Accommodating the Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment on the Asteroid Redirect Mission,” whose small passive payload on the Asteroid Retrieval Vehicle would transport extremophiles through deep space and return them to Earth to test panspermia and astrobiology.
     
  • Planetary Resources Development Corp. of Redmond, Washington: The “Arkyd Spacecraft Collaboration with NASA’s Asteroid Initiative” study will determine how three classes of small, low-cost spacecraft being developed by Planetary Resources could be modified to enhance NASA’s planned asteroid missions.
  • The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland: “Planetary Object Geophysical Observer,” a secondary payload that is a hopper to be dropped on the asteroid surface by the Asteroid Retrieval Vehicle to measure elemental composition of asteroid regolith at multiple locations.
     
  • Honeybee Robotics Spacecraft Mechanisms Corp. of Pasadena, California: “Shotgun,” a secondary payload that would deploy multiple small kinetic impactors from the Asteroid Retrieval Vehicle to characterize asteroid regolith.
     
  • Deep Space Industries of Houston: “Secondary Spacecraft in Support of ARM,” which will assess three spacecraft types being developed for compatibility with the Asteroid Retrieval Vehicle or launch on the Space Launch System, and examine public-private partnership approaches.

 

Three studies will address potential partnerships to enhance U.S. exploration activities in cislunar space in conjunction with the crewed mission:

  • Honeybee Robotics Spacecraft Mechanisms Corp. of Pasadena, California: The “NanoDrill and Caching System” study will develop concepts for drilling tools and sample caching systems that could be used by astronauts during a spacewalk on the asteroid.
     
  • Deep Space Industries: The “Industry Funded Participation in the Asteroid Initiative” study will analyze the economic fundamentals of a commercially oriented Asteroid Initiative and develop figures of merit that are relevant to commercial needs. Potential demonstrations of in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) will also be assessed.
     
  • Planetary Resources Development Corp.: The “Planetary Resources ISRU Partnership with NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Crewed Mission” study will provide the commercial perspective on the challenges and opportunities that both government and businesses will face in partnering toward exploration and exploitation of space resources. 
     
  • Planetary Resources Development Corp.: The “Planetary Resources ISRU Partnership with NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Crewed Mission” study will provide the commercial perspective on the challenges and opportunities that both government and businesses will face in partnering towards exploration and exploitation of space resources.