- Parabolic Arc
- June 7, 2023
NASA Asteroid Retrieval Mission Begins to Identify Targets
WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — NASA is on the hunt to add potential candidate target asteroids for the agency’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). The robotic mission will identify, capture and redirect a near-Earth asteroid to a stable orbit around the moon. In the 2020s, astronauts will explore the asteroid and return to Earth with samples. This will test and advance new technologies and spaceflight experience needed to take humans to Mars in the 2030s.
NASA has two options for robotic asteroid capture. One concept would capture a small asteroid in its “native orbit” – the natural orbit in which it is found. The other would retrieve a boulder from a larger asteroid. NASA will decide between the capture options in December and hold a Mission Concept Review in early 2015, which will further refine the design of the mission.
A lean, agile team of NASA engineers are testing the two concepts, capitalizing on technology and engineering work already underway at NASA. Four industry teams selected through NASA’s recent Broad Agency Announcement also are developing concepts to either enhance this work or provide alternative ideas.
NASA’s plans to announce the target asteroid for the mission approximately a year before launching the robotic spacecraft, scheduled for no earlier than 2019. To date NASA has identified three valid candidates for the small asteroid concept and three for the boulder concept. The agency expects to identify one or two additional candidates each year that could become valid targets for the mission.
Before an asteroid can make the valid candidate list, NASA’s ARM target identification criteria must be met. Scientists must determine the rotation, shape, precise orbit, spectral class, and most importantly, size of the asteroid itself. With the asteroid millions of miles away from Earth, defining these factors requires a series of observations and analysis.
Telescopes on Earth and in space contribute to the observation, tracking and characterization of an asteroid. The process begins by detecting Near Earth Objects (NEOs) and starting to track their orbits. Ground observatories first scan an area in the sky to detect an object moving across the background of stationary stars and report its position in relation to them. The International Astronomical Union Minor Planet Center collects the resulting data and determines if the object has already been identified. If classified as a new object, scientists will be able to have a rough orbit and estimate of the size of the object within a day or two of the initial discovery.
Detecting an asteroid isn’t enough to conclude it could be a good candidate for NASA’s asteroid mission. Scientists need to further understand an asteroid’s shape, size, spin rate, and even surface features when picking a candidate. The best way to precisely measure these characteristics is with interplanetary radar, but only if the object is close enough to Earth to be observed this way. When the asteroid is not within the range of radar, the NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope can contribute to the data collection using infrared imaging if the object can be seen by it.
Infrared light is a better indicator of an object’s true size because by measuring its infrared glow the amount of solar heating the entire object re-radiates can be determined. Combining the data collected by Spitzer and ground observatories allows an asteroid’s density and mass to be more precisely estimated. Spitzer’s infrared imaging has enabled NASA to determine the size of two ARM candidates thus far.
The three valid candidates so far for the small asteroid concept are 2009 BD, 2011 MD and 2013 EC20. The size of 2009 BD is estimated to be roughly 4 meters (13 feet) in size, while 2011 MD is estimated to be approximately 6 meters (20 feet). These sizes are inferred by data provided by the Spitzer observatory. 2013 EC20 is about 2 meters (7 feet) in size, as determined by radar imaging.
Most known large asteroids are too big to be fully captured and have orbits too distant for the ARM spacecraft to redirect them into orbit around the moon. Some are so distant when discovered that their size and makeup are difficult for even our most powerful telescopes to discern. Still, others could be potential candidates but go from newly discovered to out of our telescope range so quickly that there is not enough time to observe them adequately.
There are currently three validated asteroid candidates for the boulder concept, known as Itokawa, Bennu and 2008 EV5. Itokawa was well characterized by close and direct observation on the Japanese Hayabusa mission and is known to contain boulders an ideal size of roughly 3 meters (10 feet). Both 2008 EV5 and Bennu have been imaged via radar, collecting data from which it can be inferred they have boulders of the appropriate size. In addition, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission to launch in 2016 will study Bennu, and conduct detailed mapping of the surface of the asteroid in addition to taking samples and returning them to Earth for further study.
Any asteroid ultimately chosen for the mission will contain remnants of material from the solar system’s formation. In the 2020s, astronauts will visit the asteroid for a number of activities, including returning to Earth with substantial selected samples. The results could open new scientific learning about the formation of our solar system and the beginning of life on Earth, inform us about what resources asteroids may contain for use in future exploration, and foster partnerships with industry for future endeavors in space.
ARM will help NASA test and advance the technologies necessary for future human missions to and from Mars, including Solar Electric Propulsion, human spaceflight aboard the Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, and complex mission operations in deep space orbits. To learn more about ARM’s impact on the manned mission to Mars, visit How Will NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission Help Humans Reach Mars?
29 responses to “NASA Asteroid Retrieval Mission Begins to Identify Targets”
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IFF we pull this off, we will have the start of space mining.
Especially if there’s a followup to an NEO asteroid in its native orbit. Such a mission combo could be exactly the sort of exploration work NASA is [hopefully] suited for, laying the pioneering groundwork for private industry to follow up on and capitalize on.
Possibility ≠ profitability
They should declare Itokawa the target and they can start designing the craft to pick up the boulder now – we already have good pics of candidate boulders on that asteroid. Bennu can be a possible backup plan, depending on the results of the upcoming OSIRIS-REx mission.
Rep. Lamar Smith recently harshly criticized this mission in congress saying, “They still don’t have a budget, they still don’t have an asteroid, and they still don’t have a launch date. That doesn’t sound to me like a very serious program.”
Well, then pick Itokawa as the general target, pick a particular boulder on Itokawa as the primary specific target, and then start characterizing the spacecraft needed and the programmatic needs involved and come up with a preliminary budget. Then set up a launch date. Everything can start to fall into place once a target is picked. Sure, the scientists involved would rather wait and see what all their options are, but this is not a well loved program. Its haziness only contributes to its vulnerability to the ol’ axe.
Other targets would seem to present too much of a unknown until we actually get the spacecraft out there, right next to them, perhaps to encounter an unpleasant surprise that turns the whole multi-billion dollar effort into a failure.
I think if the presidency changes parties, this gets cancelled. Which is too bad — not because this is the most exciting mission or the best use of taxpayer dollars, but more that it is in fact *something*. It’s both challenging and doable, and should have us set up for future missions out to an asteroid in situ (pending development of a habitation module and more) or down to the lunar surface (pending development of a lunar lander and more).
It’s not completely satisfactory as a standalone goal though (further steps are unfunded), and neither party in congress is enthused.
The best thing would be for Falcon Heavy and Dragon v2 to get going and cancel the whole damn SLS/Orion thing and use the resulting savings on actual missions, but it could easily see SLS/Orion continuing, but starting over with a whole new direction (probably a series of lunar landings) after the next election.
The shame is, besides the ungodly sums of money, the years and years wasted going in first one direction, then the other, but not finishing either.
This was really about SLS/Orion looking for a mission. The science value or even the commercial value is really debateable.
I’m with Tonya. In any scenerio, it’s a likely candidate for cancellation simply because, hey, no real support.
But then what? Congress doesn’t like it, but they haven’t volunteered to fund a lunar lander (a moon return appears to be the general preference).
I guess a moon flyby and a lunar orbital flight could be scheduled (or even done) as placeholder missions until SLS/Orion has to be cancelled…
EM has mused over doing a Moon flyby and return to prove out / demonstrate the capability of FH and Dragon Crew. Bet that’ll happen before any SLS / Orion mission.
Not really. This mission can be done without SLS, or even orion. In fact, considering how expensive SLS is to launch, I suspect that we will not use it.
I just wish that spacex would launch FH already and announce the BFR so as to put the wooden stake into SLS and save 5-10B.
Amen to that.
The targets that NASA should be identifying is LEO garbage that needs to be deorbited. Sooner or later this mess MUST be tackled and a private company would be the perfect way to address the problem.
Multiple things can go forward.
if a private company is the perfect way to address the problem, then why should NASA be targeting the debris?
Because a private company would not have the ability to target/track and prioritize the space debris and would work in conjunction with NASA/Military to conduct this type of work.
why would a private company be asking NASA to determine which debris it needs to deorbit? would it not be contracting directly with the countries or companies that launched the objects in the first place?
Depends? There may be certain pieces of space debris that may carry a higher priority for removal due to proximity of NASA or U.S. military space assets.
Don’t know how all this would be handled or by who just throwin it out there.
neither NASA nor the US military can remove objects from orbit that do not belong to them.
Would love to comment on that but I would get myself in trouble.
Not legally, anyway.
Yeah only about 10yrs worth and my job LoL
i meant that the US military and / or NASA can’t legally remove objects from orbit that don’t belong to them.
Under Article VIII of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, those pieces of space debris are still the property of their launching nation. Unless a private company has express permission, it can’t do anything to debris belonging to other nations. It gets very complicated, not only from the ownership perspective but also on the energy required to remove pieces of debris in different orbits.
Does that also mean that those nations are responsible for any collisions with say working sats?
yes. although Russia argued that it was not liable in the case of the Kosmos-Iridium collision in 2009,
there are legal standards of ownership, responsibility, and liablity for objects launched into space.
And they will responsibility for any of their actions.
Technically, yes but it’s hard to enforce. Several years ago, a dead Russian satellite collided with a live Iridium satellite. IIRC, not only was the Russian satellite dead, it never had any maneuvering capacity in the first place. Iridium satellites have a maneuvering capability so they should’ve been the one to move to avoid a collision. However, the very design of the Iridium constellation means you have continuous close encounters, not only with other Iridium satellites but with others as well. The Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) at Vandenberg is working on an upgrade to their system to allow for a more accurate catalog of space objects but I don’t think that’s online yet.
The question of ownership can be tough to determine for newly detected pieces of debris. Under the official rules of the JSpOC, you can’t officially add a new object to the Space Catalog until you can identify its origin. Normally, they can back propagate the object to the launch or breakup that caused it. However, this isn’t always possible. Today, the smallest objects they can reliably track have RCS values of about 10 cm and not all sensors can see things that small. As they bring in more sensitive sensors online (like the X-band fence), they’ll be able to track far smaller objects. Depending on the orbit, some of those objects could’ve been in space for a long time, making it difficult to determine who owns them. Not only that, but the estimated number of debris pieces will overwhelm the existing Space Catalog. It isn’t an easy problem to fix.
Yeah, that was the case I was thinking of.
Exactly! And abiding by this treaty future companies would be able to bill or be hired for services once agreements are made on how to clean up LEO.
I hope not.
This is really what NASA was created for: to push boundaries that business will not.
And NASA will continue to help private space to space stations, go to the moon and to mars, at the same time.
As such, it makes sense for NASA to do this.
But, I suspect that you are right.