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NASA Calls for American Industry Ideas on Asteroid Retrieval Spacecraft Development

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
October 23, 2015
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Artists concept of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission capturing an asteroid boulder before redirecting it to an astronaut-accessible orbit around Earth's moon. (Credit: NASA)

Artists concept of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission capturing an asteroid boulder before redirecting it to an astronaut-accessible orbit around Earth’s moon. (Credit: NASA)

PASADENA, Calif. (NASA PR) — NASA, through its Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, has issued a call to American industry for innovative ideas on how the agency could obtain a core advanced solar electric propulsion-based spacecraft to support the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM).

Part of NASA’s overall Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), this mission will use a number of important technologies to prepare for an early human exploration mission in deep space — specifically, the area around the moon known as cislunar space. The robotic mission also will provide the first large-scale asteroid samples on which to conduct research and analysis for better understanding of the composition and nature of these primordial planetary bodies, leading to future use of in-situ resources from asteroids. The mission both uses and expands NASA’s ability to detect, characterize and mitigate the threat these space rocks pose to our home planet. The highest priority of ARM is to affordably demonstrate and prove new capabilities needed for future human missions to Mars.

“We’re eager to hear from American companies on their ideas for a spacecraft design that could accommodate our advanced solar electric propulsion requirements and robotic technologies,” said NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot. “We’re also interested in what sorts of innovative commercial, international and academic partnerships opportunities might be practical and help reduce overall mission costs while still demonstrating the technologies we need for our journey to Mars.”

NASA’s ARRM is being formulated to perform a number of technology demonstrations needed for the agency’s journey to Mars, including the use of a 20-fold improvement in state-of-the-art deep space solar electric propulsion capability to move and maneuver multi-ton objects. The objective of the robotic segment of ARM is to acquire a multi-ton boulder from a large asteroid and redirect it to a crew-accessible orbit around our moon, setting the stage for future integrated crewed and robotic vehicle

operations in deep space.

NASA’s ARRM spacecraft will need to be able to demonstrate support of high power solar electric propulsion, with initial solar array power of approximately 50 kilowatts. The robotics capture system planned aboard the pioneering vehicle will be capable of acquiring a 20 ton (or larger) boulder of up to about 19 feet (six meters) in width from an asteroid’s surface and then returning it to an astronaut-accessible orbit near our moon. The spacecraft is being formulated to fit atop a variety of launch vehicles — NASA’s Space Launch System or a commercially provided rocket. The spacecraft will need to be ready for launch by the end of 2020.

While at a large asteroid, the spacecraft will demonstrate a “slow-push” planetary defense asteroid deflection technique during the mission. This uses the spacecraft and boulder’s combined gravitational pull to attempt to change the course of an asteroid.

ARM brings together the best of NASA’s science, technology and human exploration efforts to accomplish several important objectives that are critical elements during our journey to Mars.

Redirecting and “parking” a large asteroid boulder within reach of human and robotic explorers also will provide American commercial enterprises their first opportunities to investigate the viability of mining asteroids for precious metals and other resources.

NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission and the robotic component of the overall mission will be the topic of an online Adobe Connect community update on Friday, Oct. 23 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. EDT. During the update, NASA leaders will share recent developments for the Asteroid Redirect Mission, including the recent spacecraft design study solicitation and the selection of the mission’s Formulation Assessment and Support Team members. The Adobe Connect meeting is open to the public. Access to the online session will be available a few minutes before the start of the update at:

More information about NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission and the agency’s Asteroid Initiative is available online at:

9 responses to “NASA Calls for American Industry Ideas on Asteroid Retrieval Spacecraft Development”

  1. newpapyrus says:

    ARM is a complete waste of tax payer money!

    NASA’s focus should be on exploiting the water resources at the lunar poles for a future water producing lunar outpost that could be used to export lunar water from its low gravity well to depots located at one of the Earth-Moon Lagrange points for drinking, washing, food preparation, oxygen production, mass shielding, and propellant for reusable crewed interplanetary spacecraft destined for Mars.


    • Vladislaw says:

      America’s commercial aerospace firms are smart enough to figure out how to exploit water. NASA has to be the market.. not the supplier.. When is NASA actually going to be ready to buy lunar water is the better question.

  2. Andrew_M_Swallow says:

    Phobos will require a sophisticated lander and rover developing. A second SEP tug can be manufactured for a medium cost to take the lander there.

  3. TimR says:

    NASA’s ARM and also the OSIRIS-REx mission are making near-Earth asteroid exploration extremely costly. Human spaceflight (HSF) when added to a mission concept is like the touch of Midas in the sense that it raises costs incredibly. The OSIRIS-REx mission for what is planned – returning a few grams – an ounce or two – of asteroid regolith is costing NASA and taxpayers $1 Billion. The mission cost got out of hand – poor design and management. For what ARM will spend, discovery and dozens of survey missions could be performed on Near-Earth Asteroids (NEA). ARM is not needed to develop and prove the technologies being tossed around. It will complicate the timeline to humans landing or orbiting Mars by years if not a whole decade.

    • TimR says:

      In early 2013 I wrote up this mission concept simply called at the time SAFEX. NASA’s mission is to explore and it has done so incredibly well using robotic spacecraft of all kinds. This would create a new class. A cargo vehicle loaded with small cubesat class probes, residing at an Earth-Moon Lagrange point (the Waypoint Station), awaiting the passage of asteroids near Earth. Given a few days lead time, a trajectory could be calculated and with little more than 1 km/sec delta-V, the cubesat probe could perform a flyby. Most would be fast flybys but modern detectors are very capable of functioning with minutes and seconds to spare. Some would be slow or even rendezvous approaches, just depending on the asteroid, how it would be approaching the Earth and the Waypoint Station.

      With NASA exploring many small NEAs, effectively performing survey missions, it would become the information needed by commercial asteroid prospectors to select and determine how these space resources could be exploited. The cost to asteroid mining start-ups to do the same thing is cost prohibitive; given the survey information, the start-ups could more effectively direct their funding and development. Furthermore, the mission was meant to give NASA Ames’s spare LADEE spacecraft bus a mission and the respective engineers a follow-on mission. Now that bus is more likely destined to the Ames Center Visitors Center for display. A Minotaur LV was considered (what sent LADEE to the Moon) but today a Falcon 9 could carry a dozen rather than just six SAFEX probes within a carrier. The cubesat probes can achieve the delta-V and trajectory to flyby using a simple hydrazine prop system. Since this concept was submitted, cubesat technologies have advanced and the concept is even more compelling.

  4. Andrew_M_Swallow says:

    One of the main aims of the ARRM mission is to test the large SEP needed for the manned missions to Mars and the Moon. Too much cargo (habitats, 2 years food etc.) has to arrive for chemical thrusters to be viable.

    Wheels may not work on Phobos but a walker whose feet are grippers could.

  5. Andrew_M_Swallow says:

    I mentioned Mars cargo not people. Payloads in the 50-60 ton range that need the SLS to launch.

  6. TimR says:

    Yes, I am aware of private intentions but as I emphasized, discovery and early and many low-cost surveys of NEAs could be an incredibly valuable resource that NASA provides private industry. A single mission such as SAFEX, is a $100M venture for private industry. More than one mission of 12 flyby surveyors is needed. That is cost prohibitive for these start-ups. Now in the hands of NASA (.gov), a SAFEX mission is a $250M project but that is the simple fact of doing R&D and discovery through a government funded and operated agency. While costly through NASA, the ROI is potentially very good and the knowledge produced becomes public domain serving both scientific interests and development of the space industry. If this discovery and surveying is left to private hands, knowledge will be protected and monopolized by those private interests.

  7. Andrew_M_Swallow says:

    It is not in the financial interests of the parts of NASA making the SLS and Orion to state that view. When selling something like ARM to Congress it is a good strategy to minimise the number of enemies you make.

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