NASA’s Asteroid Initiative – OPINION

AdminCadet: NASA and the Administration has established the “NASA Asteroid Redirect and Sampling Mission” as the current goal of our Human Space Program.  The initiative consists of three stages:  First, ground and space based infrastructure will detect, characterize, and select the targeted asteroid.  Then the asteroid will be robotically redirected to earth-moon space using a vehicle provided with advanced solar electric propulsion.  Placing the asteroid in lunar-vicinity space will establish a rendezvous destination for the Orion and SLS vehicles and allow subsequent human investigation and sampling of the asteroid using Orion / SLS assets during proximity operations.

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Asteroid Initiative

Credit: nasa.gov

What do you think of this Human Space Flight Initiative?

My opinion: I’m more in favor of returning to the moon and working toward establishment of a permanent presence on the lunar surface.  I think a lunar mission will provide us with invaluable experience and knowledge for a subsequent mission to Mars and its Moons.  Yes, I know, President Obama said: “Done that, been there”, but I don’t subscribe to that rather un-informed opinion.  I do think the Asteroid Initiative will grow our asteroid detection infrastructure and solar electric propulsion technology, and I see strong advantages in this. But the mission is projected to take until 2023 for completion, with the identification/selection and robotic retrieval operations taking the majority of the schedule. Apparently staged un-crewed flights of the Orion would occur in parallel.  Such an extended mission could have detrimental impacts to the NASA human space flight workforce  – both in motivation, in loss of near term goals, and limited opportunities for human space flight experience beyond Low Earth Orbit.

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8 thoughts on “NASA’s Asteroid Initiative – OPINION

    • The “Asteroid Retrieval Mission” became the “Asteroid Redirect Mission” (when full-on “Retrieval” became too difficult). Now there’s two flavors… still attempt to two the rock back to the lunar distant retrograde orbit… or, simply pick up a boulder and bring that home.

  1. While it sounds exciting, there are several problems with this asteroid redirect mission.
    1) The President simply announced this objective because he didn’t want to go to the Moon. The pathetic excuse of “we’ve been there” is beyond ludicrous. If that’s the case, why are we bothering to spend money going to Mars? We’ll land there and declare it done. Been there. Move on. What kind of an exploratory culture goes to a place only once? If we did that back in the 1600s, the United States would not exist. And also… Obama’s agenda was primarily politically driven. He cancelled the Constellation moon program because GW announced it. (And even then, GW only spoke of it ONCE, and never funded it properly.) So… on this tangent, canceling Constellation with the excuse of it being over budget and behind schedule is a misdirection of the truth. It was behind schedule because it was under-funded. GW never supported it and Congress never properly funded it. Take that together with it having the stigma of being a Bush creation, and Obama *had* to kill it. Then he tossed NASA a bone, under some very poor advice from his uninformed advisors, and told us we were going to an asteroid.
    2) To go to an asteroid, you first have to find one. This mission is intended to go after a “small” asteroid, probably in the 10ish meter size range. NEOs of that size are VERY hard to find from the ground. In order to find these objects and characterize the population, we need space-based assets. Ground telescopes can not do the job.
    3) Once you have found one, you have to characterize it. The engineers building this mission are operating under the misconception that all asteroids are just rocks. Wrong. There are numerous flavors and classes of asteroids. Some are indeed solid rocks. Some are shattered rocks. Some are contact binaries. Some are non-contact binaries. Some are rubble piles. Some have satellites. Some are dormant comets. Some are iron balls. Also, measuring size of the thing is crucial if we intend to haul it back to the Moon. Size is measured using an estimate of the reflectivity (albedo). Get that wrong, and your size will be off. Many asteroids are dark… VERY dark. Darker than charcoal. Imagine spending several billion dollars and a decade building a spacecraft expecting a 10m rock only to fly up to the thing and discover it’s half a mile across and a lopsided peanut-shaped rubble pile that would crumble if you tried to grab it. Bummer. The engineers and program managers are going about this backwards. They did not properly consult the small body community (that nearly universally considers this mission folly and of little scientific merit). First you study the population. Then you find a candidate object. Then you characterize it. Then… only then… do you build a mission to go after it.
    4) If you want to study asteroids, there are three main things you want to learn: What’s it made of? (Geochemistry and mineralogy help us understand the formation of the solar system.) What is its structural makeup? (Is it solid? Is it a puffball or rubble pile? Is it full of voids?) Planetary defense applications. (We need to understand how to deflect asteroids if we ever find one with our number on it. This part of the study greatly depends on the structural makeup question.) All three of those objectives can be accomplished robotically. Risking human lives not required. Remember, radiation exposure is one of our long poles for sending people beyond the Moon. It’s a very tough problem. Most of the interesting asteroids are on hard to get to orbits, requiring crews to be in space for 6 mos or more (assuming the use of traditional chemical rockets). Flight surgeons have declared 6 mos as the radiation limit for deep space missions. So we have to find asteroids that we can get to, study, and get back all within 26 weeks. Not a trivial task. And of course, there’s the constant risk of a solar flare. Mass is everything when building spacecraft. So Orion is not built with heavy duty shields. We would have to build a exploration module or mini-station to make the journey with Orion attached. It would need a safe-haven to wait out solar flare or other radiation events. It’s a big… expensive… problem.
    5) The reason for towing this thing back to the Moon is because Orion can not travel beyond the Moon. The upper stage on the SLS rocket is not powerful enough to throw Orion beyond the Moon. So the “solution” is to tow a rock back to the Moon, thus justifying the need for humans (and Orion). And since the tow-back operation is robotic, that means big bucks for JPL.
    6) Without this asteroid mission, human spaceflight (in the US anyway) is dead. ISS won’t last forever. After 2020 or 2024 (depending if you talk to NASA or the Internationals… the latter of whom have not yet bought off on 2024), without ISS and with the Moon (for lame political reasons) declared off-limits, this kluge of a mission to tow an asteroid back to the Moon is the only thing keeping human spaceflight hopes alive.
    7) The asteroid mission was an Obama administration creation. It most likely will not survive the next election. There’s no reason for it to. Any casual survey of our international partners (and NASA worker bees not drinking the ARM Koolaid) will clearly reveal our objective should be The Moon. No one outside Washington DC understands NASA’s obsession with this asteroid mission. With the scientific community still rolling their eyes at this silly concept, the next President – if he/she has a brain – will get that message and kill ARM. Where will that leave us? In limbo of course… unless the new administration buys a clue and realizes our real next destination should be the largest and closest Near Earth Object we can in fact get out and walk around on: our planetary neighbor, only 3 days away.

  2. We haven’t even graduated from the Powerpoint design phase and we are already slipping schedule to the right by 2 years
    yeah this asteroid mission has all the markings of a great success /s
    the robotic redirect was supposed to launch in 2017 and get to the asteroid by 2019, now the latest update from NASA doesn’t have the retrieval ship launching until 2019.

    I still have yet to see them connect the threads on how sending two people to cislunar space to crawl around on the outside of a hefty bagged asteroid is testing out/laying the groundwork for going to Mars.
    It won’t be a modified ACES suit that we walk on Mars with.
    There is gravity on Mars and Entry Descent and Landing is a lot tougher than rendezvousing with some rock at a Lagrange point.
    trip time, comm delay, radiation risk, and logistics for ARM vs. Mars landing way different but sure keep trying to sell ARM as something more than the sole justification for what is it $30B to develop SLS and Orion through 2021.

  3. So many aspects of this mission are a technological dead end. Doing this ARM thing will not really help us live on the Moon or get to Mars.
    The scientific value of hauling a several thousand to million+ ton asteroid back to Earth is minimal. (And don’t even get me started on the ludicrous ideas of economically mining such an object – *economically* being the key word.) The spacecraft designers also swear up and down they have adequate control authority to arm wrestle with an asteroid. Think about this… all spacecraft are mass optimized… especially robotic vehicles. They’re made of carbon composite, aluminum, mylar, and tin foil. Imagine trying to grab onto an object, uncooperatively tumbling in 3 axes, that weighs several thousand to upwards of a million or more tons, with a foil wrapped butterfly. Even if you could get your arms (or airbag) around it… who would have who??

    What about bulk mineralogy? Ok, yeah, we can study that, but we don’t need to tow a mountain home. All we need is a few samples. Space weathering? Uh, no. The community that uses the upper few cm’s of the regolith will not want this mission (they are vocally opposed to it) because their pristine space environment is destroyed by throwing a bag over it. Structural assessments? No. Throwing a bag around the object will disturb whatever state it was in. And if it’s a loosely consolidated rubble pile, the bag could crush it. What if the object has an unseen satellite? Wanna drive up and grab the parent body only to have its moon come around and whack us in the back of the head? What about planetary defense? Yes, we do indeed need to practice moving one of these things if we want to continue to survive on this planet. Is an airbag approach useful? No. If anything is small enough to get a bag around, it’s not a planet killer. And the airbag approach would only work on a small subset of neat tidy solo objects. A gravity tractor (if we have enough lead time) is by far the better way to go.

    The entire ARM retrieval concept is flawed – especially when presented in “scientific” terms. This mission was concocted as a way to keep NASA happy, avoid the Moon, and keep human spaceflight alive (barely… more like, on life support). The White House doesn’t care about exploration and has clearly communicated to Bolden, “Don’t do anything to draw my attention or cost us more money.” Hence… why Orion, SLS, and ARM are scratching along on minimal funds. Recall… Obama made no bones about eviscerating NASA’s budget during the 2008 election so he could fund his educational programs. And I find that ultimately ironic… he says he’s a big STEM education proponent, but he refuses to give the students anything to be inspired about (like exploring the solar system). Come on and work for NASA! But… we have nothing for you to do.

    • Boy do I agree with that last part – how do we get kids excited to go into science, especially space science, when we are surrounded on all sides by the disinterested and frankly rather arrogant environment that exists today. I mean have you read some of the comments that come up blasting editorials touting space exploration for scientific sake? I do wonder as I’ve said before if America is getting the space program they want and maybe deserve. 😦

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