Op-ed | The MILO Institute: a new model for deep space exploration

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This article originally appeared in the Dec. 17, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

It is a sobering fact that for every one of the amazing deep space robotic missions carried out by NASA, ESA, JAXA and other space agencies, at least 10 others were proposed but never flown. Most of those other missions would have achieved exciting and compelling science had the resources existed to carry them out. Clearly, much more science and exploration can be done beyond what is funded today.

This fact is the basis for creating the MILO Space Science Institute, a new organization announced in October at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) meeting in Bremen, Germany. The MILO Institute is a nonprofit entity created within Arizona State University (ASU). The institute was founded in close association with Lockheed Martin and GEOshare, a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin devoted to enabling new collaborative mission models.

The MILO Institute’s mission is to augment the work of traditional space agencies by enabling more frequent, affordable and science-driven missions to be flown. Our hypothesis is there is a global market for space science missions that are accessible to the many newly emerging space agencies, new and established university space science institutes and departments, space focused companies, and private philanthropic organizations. The MILO Institute will assemble a consortium of such organizations to jointly conduct new deep space missions.

An artist's impression of an asteroid breaking up. Credit: NASA
An artist’s impression of an asteroid breaking up. Credit: NASA

At the recent IAC in Bremen, we announced preliminary details for our inaugural mission and met with representatives from more than 20 organizations interested in joining. For the MILO Institute’s first mission we wanted to address compelling, Decadal Survey-quality science objectives, and to achieve the mission quickly (staying in the inner solar system) and affordably (keeping the mission architecture relatively simple). Our first mission, which we are calling NEOshare, will baseline the launch of several independent cubesat/smallsat class spacecraft to perform close flyby encounters of a diverse set of Near Earth Objects (NEOs). Baseline payload instruments would enable each spacecraft to characterize in detail the surface geology, mineralogy, ice-volatile-organic inventory, density and other properties.

Using reasonable assumptions about launch and spacecraft delta-V capabilities, we have identified more than 100 currently known asteroids and 20 currently known comets to consider studying up close. Some of the flyby spacecraft could be retargeted to a second flyby object after their first encounter. In some mission models, the consortium could double — in a single mission — the number of asteroids and comets visited so far by all other missions flown to date. This baseline design will undergo changes once the consortium is in place (for example, to accommodate additional cruise space physics research), and other missions are being considered. We are confident that other missions can be developed in parallel as the MILO Institute advances and evolves.

Our first mission is planned to launch in early 2023 and start its first encounters just a few months later. Total mission duration is expected to be no more than three to five years, helping to meet our requirement of rapid science return and proof-of-concept for our new space science model. The baseline cost of our first mission is estimated at around $200 million, including launch vehicle. Affordability will scale directly with the number of MILO Institute members. We plan to involve 20 to 30 organizations in our inaugural mission, and to offer different membership price points to participate, depending on what each organization wants to achieve, from just access to the science data to full development of one or more of the six spacecraft. We intend to have financial commitments for the inaugural mission by the end of 2019, although funds to develop and then operate the mission would be phased over the mission duration.

All MILO Institute members will have access to all mission data, in accordance with agreements worked out among team members. For public data sharing, our missions will have an active education and outreach program along with plans to adopt a proprietary data period policy as well (like that for data from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope) so that first rights on publication of mission discoveries goes to MILO member organization scientists, engineers and students. Members who want or need specific technical test or performance data to remain proprietary will be accommodated.

The MILO Institute aims to involve new deep space exploration partners from around the world that have relevant expertise in space science, systems, payloads, operations, and education and workforce training, but who do not have the hefty sums of money needed to mount a Decadal-level deep space mission on their own or who do not compete for rare opportunities to partner with the traditional space agencies due to lack of the relevant space flight heritage. We hope that the MILO Institute will increase the global pool of expertise that can compete for involvement in larger or more complex future missions flown by NASA and others.

If your organization or agency wants to get involved and gain experience in cutting-edge deep space exploration and science, guided by the mission and payload development, mission operations, and science processing and analysis experience of ASU and Lockheed Martin, check out the MILO Space Science Institute online at https://newspace.asu.edu/MILO-institute/ or reach out to the Institute’s executive director, David Thomas at [email protected]. We hope you join us!


Jim Bell is a planetary scientist and professor in ASU’s School of Earth & Space Exploration, the director of ASU’s Space Technology and Science Initiative and the chief scientist for the Milo Institute.