New NASA Office Seeks Ideas for Hosted Asteroid Sensor

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WASHINGTON — NASA is seeking industry ideas for an asteroid tracking sensor that would launch aboard a geostationary-orbiting satellite as soon as 2016 in what would be the agency’s third hosted payload mission.

The asteroid finding mission would be managed by a new office at NASA Headquarters charged with devising and carrying out robotic precursors to manned missions.

The instrument must be able to detect objects as small as 30 meters in diameter from distances of up to 75 million kilometers, according to NASA’s Aug. 17 request for information. The instrument should weigh no more than 75 kilograms, be no larger than 0.5 cubic meters in volume and draw no more than 500 watts of power, NASA said.

The cost-cap for the mission, including instrument development and five years of operations, is $50 million in 2012 dollars, NASA said. The host satellite could be either government- or commercially owned, NASA said.

Responses are due Sept. 17. NASA said that should it decide to go ahead with this hosted payload mission, it will begin procurement “in early 2013.”

“The idea behind the request for information was to use an established program — geo-hosting — as a means of getting an instrument capable of detecting smaller near-Earth asteroids that may also present low-delta v destinations for human exploration,” Victoria Friedensen, manager of the Joint Robotics Precursor Activities (JRPA) office at NASA Headquarters here, said in an Aug. 21 email.

Delta v refers to the change in velocity a spacecraft must achieve to perform an orbital maneuver and change course. This requires burning fuel, so “low-delta v” destinations are those that require comparatively little fuel to reach. Mission planners also sometimes call these “low energy destinations.”

In execution, the project would be similar to secondary research carried out by NASA’s NEOWISE mission in 2010. After its primary infrared sky-mapping mission wrapped up, NASA’S $320 million Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), in conjunction with ground-based radar, scanned the skies for space rocks to catalog asteroids and comets in the solar system.

The asteroid scanner described in the Aug. 17 notice would be the third hosted payload arrangement NASA has pursued in just over a year. In August 2011, NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist, which is tasked with developing technologies for a variety of NASA missions, announced it would fly an atomic clock and a next-generation laser communications demonstration payload aboard commercial communications satellites.

The Deep Space Atomic Clock, being managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., will fly aboard one of 77 Iridium Next satellites to be launched by Iridium Communications of McLean, Va., starting in 2015. The Laser Communications Relay Demo, managed by the Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Md., could fly as soon as 2016. NASA has arranged for commercial satellite manufacturer Space Systems/Loral, Palo Alto, Calif., to broker a ride for the laser instrument.

Most commercial communications satellites launch atop non-U.S. rockets, which U.S. policy generally bars from lofting payloads funded by NASA and other government agencies. However, the White House has leeway to waive this policy, particularly when the payload in question is experimental.

NASA’s JRPA office, which is taking the lead on the proposed asteroid-observing hosted payload, is charged with reducing risk on future human exploration missions via robotic probes. The office was formally established in U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2013 budget request at the direction of the Office of Management and Budget, Friedensen said.

The Obama administration has targeted an unspecified asteroid as NASA’s next big astronaut destination.

NASA has allocated $30 million to the new office in 2013, $20 million of which would come from the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate’s Advanced Exploration Systems line and $10 million from the Science Mission Directorate’s Planetary Science Division.

NASA is still fine-tuning JRPA’s management structure. The science and human spaceflight directorates are in the late stages of crafting a memorandum of understanding on the subject, Friedensen said. “Two people will manage the JRPA activities on a part-time basis from NASA HQ and the total employment will be determined by the projects actually funded,” she said.

JRPA got an $18 million allocation this year, although only the human spaceflight division chipped in, according to Friedensen.