Asteroid Initiative Forum Report

In this concept image, the robotic vehicle deploys an inflatable bag to envelop a free-flying small asteroid before redirecting it to a distant retrograde lunar orbit. (Credit: NASA)
In this concept image, the robotic vehicle deploys an inflatable bag to envelop a free-flying small asteroid before redirecting it to a distant retrograde lunar orbit. (Credit: NASA)

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — NASA officials discussed latest progress and new opportunities in the agency’s Asteroid Initiative in a March 26 forum with members of the aerospace industry, academia and space enthusiasts. The forum followed a March 21  Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) calling for additional mission concept studies led outside of NASA, with $6 million in potential awards.

NASA’s Asteroid Initiative is comprised of an Asteroid Grand Challenge (AGC) to develop new partnerships and collaborations to accelerate NASA’s existing planetary defense work, and a mission to capture and redirect an asteroid and visit it with astronauts to collect samples.

» View Asteroid Initiative Opportunities Forum program and materials

NASA refers to the latter effort to identify, redirect and send astronauts to explore an asteroid as the “Asteroid Redirect Mission” (ARM). This mission has three major elements: target identification, characterization and selection; a robotic mission to capture and redirect the selected asteroid into a stable orbit above the moon; and a crewed mission segment in which astronauts in the Orion spacecraft launched aboard the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket will rendezvous with the captured asteroid, conduct spacewalks to collect samples from it, and return them to the Earth for analysis.

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“Our Asteroid Initiative is part of a stepping stone approach focused on meeting the President’s bold challenge of sending humans to Mars in the 2030s,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “The Asteroid Redirect Mission will help us develop technologies, including solar electric propulsion, needed for future deep space missions; and the Grand Challenge includes enhanced Near Earth Object (NEO) detection and characterization, which will extend our understanding of NEO threats while providing additional opportunities for investigation of asteroids and demonstrations of technologies and capabilities.”

In this concept image, the robotic vehicle descends to the surface of a large asteroid to collect a boulder that it can redirect to a distant retrograde lunar orbit. (Credit: NASA)
In this concept image, the robotic vehicle descends to the surface of a large asteroid to collect a boulder that it can redirect to a distant retrograde lunar orbit. (Credit: NASA)

Following Bolden’s welcome remarks, astronaut Karen Nyberg, who recently completed a six-month stay aboard the International Space Station, stressed the importance of the space station as a feat of international collaboration and a cornerstone for future, farther exploration into space.

“I know everybody here at NASA is extremely excited to hear your ideas on how we can go forward with the Asteroid Initiative with the ultimate goal of taking us – the world population – farther into the solar system,” said Nyberg

Mission Concept Study Updates

In a six-panel lineup, leading NASA experts described ongoing concept studies for the Asteroid Redirect Mission, starting with near-Earth object observation efforts to identify viable candidates for the mission. Mission concept leads Brian Muirhead of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and Dan Mazanek of NASA’s Langley Research Center explained the leading asteroid capture concepts. One would use an inflatable bag to envelop a small, free-flying asteroid.

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Another concept would employ robotic arms to pluck a boulder off of a larger asteroid:

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In both cases, the target asteroid would already be on a trajectory which comes near the Earth-moon system. A redirect vehicle powered by advanced solar-electric propulsion would use thrusters to slowly push the asteroid to a new position: a distant retrograde lunar orbit. Both concepts would also demonstrate basic planetary defense techniques to determine if they could be used to defend the planet in the case of a potential catastrophic asteroid collision with Earth.

Once in a stable lunar orbit, NASA would send astronauts aboard the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft to visit the asteroid. This unprecedented mission would take humans farther into deep space than ever before.

Opportunities for Involvement

A panel dedicated to the BAA opportunity featured systems experts who explained details of the five-part solicitation. Notices of intent for the BAA are due April 4 and proposals are due May 5. Contracts are expected to begin July 1 and conclude Dec. 31, 2014.

Jason Kessler, the program executive for NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge, highlighted current activities and announced a new partnership with SpaceGAMBIT that will focus on how the Maker community can engage with the challenge to find all asteroid threats to human population and know what to do about them.

The event also featured a presentation from seventh grade students at Dillard Drive Middle in Raleigh, N.C. The students have just begun using Pan-STARRS data to observe known asteroids and possibly find new near-Earth objects.

NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot concluded the event, noting that teams working on the two Asteroid Redirect Mission concepts have been consolidated into one team, and the agency is beginning to assign work on the mission concepts to NASA centers in advance of a mission concept review.

“It’s pretty exciting for me to stand here and think about how far they’ve come in just a year developing these capabilities to do this mission, but also to make sure that all the things we’re working on are extensible to our real destination, which is Mars,” Lightfoot said.

Lightfoot added he expects the Asteroid Redirect Mission to cost roughly half of the roughly $2.6 billion originally estimated in the Keck Institute for Space Studies Asteroid Retrieval Feasibility Study, released in 2012.

For the latest information about NASA’s Asteroid Initiative, follow: www.nasa.gov/asteroidinitiative