TORONTO — NASA is examining adding a habitation module to the agency’s proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) that would allow astronauts to stay at the asteroid for several additional weeks.

Chris Moore, deputy director of the Advanced Exploration Systems Division at NASA headquarters, said in a presentation at the 65th International Astronautical Congress here Oct. 3 that the module, intended to serve as a prototype of a habitat for future deep-space missions, could be in place before the first crewed mission visits the captured asteroid in the mid-2020s.

“We’re doing a study now of different module types and different times it could be launched,” Moore said. “It may be used on the first mission, if it could be ready in time.”

Under NASA’s current ARM plans, a two-person crew would fly a 26-day mission in an Orion spacecraft once the captured asteroid reached a distant retrograde orbit around the Moon. Only about five days would be spent at the asteroid, allowing for two four-hour spacewalks, with the rest of the mission spent in transit between the asteroid and Earth.

That schedule is driven by the life-support capabilities of the Orion spacecraft. Moore said the use of what NASA calls the Exploration Augmentation Module would allow the overall mission to last as long as 60 days. “This module would provide extra life support and consumables to extend Orion’s mission,” he said.

One end of the module would attach to the robotic spacecraft that redirected the captured asteroid into lunar orbit, with Orion docking at the opposite end. 

The module could also include an additional docking port to allow logistics spacecraft to dock while Orion is there, and an airlock so that astronauts could perform spacewalks without depressurizing the Orion, as currently planned.

Moore described the Exploration Augmentation Module as similar in size to a Cygnus spacecraft, a comparison that may not be coincidental. Orbital Sciences Corp. has expressed interest in finding new applications for its Cygnus cargo spacecraft, including use as a habitat module for missions in cislunar or deep space.

“Cygnus is a candidate for other missions. We think it has a great deal of potential for use in exploration missions beyond low Earth orbit,” said Frank Culbertson, executive vice president of Orbital Sciences, in a separate presentation at the conference Sept. 30. That included serving as an augmentation module for Orion and as a destination for Orion in cislunar space.

Moore said overall development of ARM is continuing on schedule, with NASA planning to make a decision in the middle of December on two options for the mission. One option would use a robotic spacecraft to redirect an asteroid up to ten meters across into lunar orbit. In the other option, the spacecraft would grab a boulder a few meters across from the surface of a larger asteroid and bring that into lunar orbit.

While specific mission timelines will depend on the orbit of the selected asteroid, Moore said the ARM robotic spacecraft would likely launch around 2019, with the crewed mission launching in 2025.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...