Asteroid Redirect Mission Delayed One Year

Asteroid Redirect Mission Delayed One Year

President Obama’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) will not meet the 2025 date he set for the program in 2010.  ARM Program Director Michele Gates told a NASA Advisory Council (NAC) committee on March 2 that launch of the robotic portion of the mission is now expected in 2021 and the crew portion in 2026.  Both are one year slips from earlier projected dates.

President Obama announced on April 15, 2010 that the next destination for human space exploration will be sending astronauts to an asteroid as a step to eventually sending them to Mars.  The mission has evolved since then.  The current concept calls for a robotic spacecraft to be sent to an asteroid where it will pick up a boulder from its surface and move the boulder to an orbit around the Moon.  Astronauts aboard an Orion spacecraft will examine the boulder and retrieve a sample for return to Earth. 

The President set 2025 as the date by which the asteroid mission should be achieved.   NASA divides the mission into the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM) and Asteroid Redirect Crew Mission (ARCM).  ARRM must be launched several years before the ARCM in order for the robotic spacecraft to reach the asteroid, observe it to determine the best place on its surface to pluck a boulder, and capture the boulder and move it to lunar orbit so it is there when the astronauts arrive.

Speaking to the NAC Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Committee, Gates said that ARRM now will be launched in December 2021 and ARCM in December 2026.  A footnote to her chart says that the target dates are expected to continue to be “refined.”  

ARCM will use the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft.  NASA formally committed to the first crewed SLS/Orion launch, Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2), in 2023, although it is hoping to launch it as early as 2021. The cadence of SLS/Orion launches is not set, but no more than one a year is expected.  Earlier in the NAC/HEO meeting, NASA HEO Associate Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier laid out plans for testing SLS and Orion once those launches begin.  He said the ARCM mission could be slated for EM-5 or EM-6, suggesting that it may be even later than 2026.

Gates also said that the cost estimate for ARRM remains at $1.25 billion, not including launch. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden has repeatedly insisted that the cost will not exceed $1.25 billion in response to concerns raised by members of the full NAC and others in the space community that ARM may siphon funds from other activities they feel are more directly related to the goal of sending humans to Mars.

ARM formally entered the formulation stage just last year, passing Key Decision Point-A (KDP-A).  The next step for the ARRM portion, KDP-B, is anticipated in the summer of 2016, but the date is not firmly set, Gates said.   NASA does not formally commit to schedule or cost until KDP-C.  No date was announced for that step. 

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is managing ARRM and recently awarded study contracts to four companies for the design of the robotic spacecraft:   Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Boeing Phantom Works, Orbital ATK, and Space Systems Loral. 

The ARM concept as a whole has garnered little support in Congress or the space community, although two aspects of it are popular:  finding and tracking asteroids, an effort that has been underway at NASA for many years and for which funding has more than doubled since the President’s announcement; and development of high power solar electric propulsion (SEP) needed for ARRM, but also applicable to many other space missions.  NASA also bills the effort as a demonstration of a planetary defense technique where the trajectory of an Earth-threatening asteroid theoretically could be altered by using the gravitational attraction between an asteroid and a nearby spacecraft   — a “gravity tractor.”   ARRM will test the gravity tractor technique, although NASA officials stress that if there is, in fact, a change in the parent asteroid’s trajectory, it will be very, very small.

NASA is requesting a total of $217 million for ARM in the FY2017 budget, although most of that is for activities that would take place even if ARM did not exist — the asteroid tracking activity in the Science Mission Directorate ($50 million) and development of solar electric propulsion in the Space Technology Mission Directorate ($66.7 million) for example.  NASA refers to that as “leveraged” funding, as compared to “direct” funding that is related specifically to ARM.  The direct funding is $67.8 million for formulation in the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate and about $1 million in the Office of the Chief Technologist.

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