Congress May Be Unenthusiastic, But Asteroid Mission Appeals to Some

Congress May Be Unenthusiastic, But Asteroid Mission Appeals to Some

NASA may be having a hard time selling its Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM) concept to Congress, but apparently there are lots of other people who think it’s a swell idea.

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said today that the agency received over 400 responses to its Request for Information (RFI) for the ARM concept.  The Obama Administration proposed ARM in the FY2014 budget request, but the agency has not yet performed a mission concept study and is seeking ideas for how to accomplish it.  The idea is to send a robotic probe to a small 7-10 meter diameter asteroid, capture it, and redirect it into lunar orbit where it could be visited by astronauts in an Orion spacecraft launched by the Space Launch System.  An alternative currently under discussion is for the robotic probe to go to a larger (and therefore easier to find) asteroid and obtain a large sample from its surface and bring the sample back for study by astronauts in space.   NASA already is planning an asteroid sample-return mission, OSIRIS-REx, and that very small sample (about 2 ounces) will be returned to the surface of Earth.  In the case of ARM, the sample would be much larger and need to be studied in space.

In any case, the RFI responses are intended to help NASA determine exactly what to do and how.  The RFI was released on June 18 and responses were due July 18.   Garver said one-third of the responses were related to the “Grand Challenge” announced by the White House and NASA in June to identify “all asteroid threats to human population and know what to do about them.”  The other two-thirds were related to five mission components.

NASA is planning a public workshop in September where the highly rated responses will be discussed.

NASA is proceeding with its planning for ARM despite, at best, a lack of enthusiasm for it in Congress.  NASA is requesting $105 million for ARM, although it is not specifically identified in the budget request.  The $105 million includes an additional $20 million in the Science Mission Directorate to search for asteroids; $45 million in the Space Technology Mission Directorate for technologies, such as solar electric propulsion, expected to be needed for whatever mission design is chosen;  and $40 million in the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate for studies. 

NASA has two committees that authorize its activities (they permit NASA to start new projects, set policy, and recommend funding) and two appropriations committees that actually give it money.  Here is where each of them came down on ARM in their respective actions to date:

  • Authorization Committees
    • House Science, Space and Technology Committee:  prohibits spending any money on ARM in H.R. 2687, the 2013 NASA authorization bill, as ordered reported from committee
    • Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee:  neither supports nor prohibits ARM in S. 1317 as introduced
  • Appropriations Committees
    • House Appropriations Committee:  “does not include any of the requested increases” for ARM in the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) bill as reported from committee (H.R. 2787, H. Rept. 113-171)
    • Senate Appropriations Committee:  silent on ARM as reported from committee (S. 1329, S. Rept. 113-78)

A Democratic alternative to the House authorization bill introduced by Rep. Donna Edwards (H.R. 2616) neither endorses nor opposes ARM.  The bill was offered as an amendment during committee markup of H.R. 2687, but was defeated.


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