NASA’s Plan to Pluck a Boulder Off An Asteroid and Orbit It Around the Moon
NASA may have its sights set on Mars, but before it can send astronauts to the Red Planet it needs to hone its skills with long-distance, long-duration human spaceflight beyond low-Earth orbit. Enter the “missing link” in exploration evolution: the Asteroid Redirect Mission, or ARM, NASA’s plan for developing the technology and experience for Mars while learning more about the composition of near-Earth asteroids – and potentially also how best to safely alter their courses.
(You know, in case we ever have to one day and Bruce, Ben, and Owen aren’t available.)
This week NASA announced its choice to go with the second of its two options for the mission: the retrieval of a boulder from the surface of an asteroid by a robotic craft, which will then tow the sample back to the Moon where it will be put into orbit and researched by astronauts.*
“The Asteroid Redirect Mission will provide an initial demonstration of several spaceflight capabilities we will need to send astronauts deeper into space, and eventually, to Mars,” said NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot. “The option to retrieve a boulder from an asteroid will have a direct impact on planning for future human missions to deep space and begin a new era of spaceflight.”
Although ARM may not have all the gutsy flashiness of a planetary mission, it will provide excellent opportunities to test all-new systems and hardware, much of which is still under development.
One valuable technology that is planned for ARM is Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP), which creates slow-but-forceful spacecraft propulsion directly through solar power without the need for massive on-board fuel reserves, providing efficiency and saving costs (but at the expense of time.) ARM would in effect use a stronger ion engine than what is currently aboard Dawn.
In addition, before the boulder from the as-yet-unspecified asteroid is brought to lunar orbit – an estimated six-year trip – the robotic ARM craft will test out a “gravity tractor” technique of moving the asteroid without touching it by maintaining a specifically angled low-altitude orbit. If successful, it could be a non-destructive method of altering the trajectories of NEOs that might otherwise one day be on collision courses with Earth… or even a way to safely bring element-rich asteroids closer to Earth where they could be easily mined for resources.
And of course astronauts will be gaining valuable experience about long-distance spaceflight operations as they perform tasks during the human portion of ARM while in lunar orbit, using the capabilities of the new Orion spacecraft and SLS rockets.
Collecting these samples will help astronauts and mission managers determine how best to secure and safely return samples from future Mars missions. And, because asteroids are made of remnants from the formation of the solar system, the returned samples could provide valuable data for scientific research or commercial entities interested in asteroid mining as a future resources. – NASA
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*The other option on the table was “bagging” an entire asteroid and bringing it back to lunar orbit.