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The Planetary Society Supports NASA's Asteroid Initiative

But we need to know the cost

Posted by Casey Dreier

27-05-2014 13:02 CDT

Topics: Space Policy, future technology, Future Mission Concepts, asteroids, human spaceflight, Planetary Society Political Advocacy, the Moon, Planetary Society People, rockets

NASA's Asteroid Initiative, which has the goal of robotically capturing a small asteroid (or boulder) and moving it into orbit around the Moon, has been around for a little over a year now, and we thought it would be a good time to re-evaluate the program and our stance towards it.

Conceptual design for an asteroid capture and retrieval spacecraft

Rick Sternbach/Keck Institute for Space Studies

Conceptual design for an asteroid capture and retrieval spacecraft

To that end, the leadership and board of The Planetary Society considered the feasibility, political support, motivations, and end-goals of the concept. After many rounds of discussion, we reached a consensus: we strongly support the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), but an independent cost estimate is needed.

We believe that the ARM is the only viable mission that advances NASA's goal of getting humans to Mars within the cost-constrained budgets of the next decade. The mission is flexible, utilizes the existing Space Launch System and Orion capsule technologies, and it is something that humanity has never before attempted: altering the cosmos.

I wasn't happy with how NASA made the original announcement, and I think they did themselves a disservice by not working more closely with the scientific community from the beginning. But they're doing better. I think there is real science to be had with this mission, though, as a human spaceflight program, it is not the primary goal of the mission. NASA is also doing a better job of explaining how ARM fits in with the larger goal of getting humans to Mars. The Asteroid Initiative also provided a greatly underappreciated doubling of the budget for near-Earth object asteroid detection (to $40M) and funding for crucial technology development, particularly in autonomous rendezvous and solar electric propulsion.

But don't take my word for it. Below is the full, updated statement (permalink) that represents the consensus view of our board. I welcome your comments.

In May 2013 The Planetary Society issued a statement saying that the Society “conditionally supports NASA's plan to capture a small asteroid and place it in lunar orbit.” The Society’s support was conditional because the detailed goals, costs, and implementation plan for this asteroid mission were not yet well defined. In the past year, NASA has made commendable progress in developing its plans for what now is known as the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). Based on this progress, we now offer strong, but still conditional, support for ARM.

Our concern is that a rigorous and independent cost and technical evaluation of the mission has not yet been completed. We worry that the ARM effort will prove a great deal more expensive than is currently being suggested. As has happened too often in the past, cost overruns lead to budgeting difficulties for years into the future. NASA’s numerous other worthy science and exploration endeavors become difficult to manage and complete. We thus urge NASA as soon as possible to undertake as comprehensive a cost and technical evaluation as is feasible at this early stage in mission definition.

The Planetary Society in 2008 developed a “Beyond the Moon” roadmap that called for a step-by-step expansion of human activity into deep space. One of the steps

on the path to Mars recommended in that Roadmap was a rendezvous with an asteroid in its native orbit. However, the initial versions of the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft mandated by the Congress and being developed by NASA cannot send astronauts on a weeks-long journey to such an asteroid without the expensive addition of a habitation module. Thus it makes sense to define an activity that can be carried out sooner, traveling to a location that can be reached with systems currently under development. The ARM is such an activity; in redirecting an asteroid to a location where it can be reached using the first generation Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft, it certainly reflects the spirit of our 2008 Roadmap.

 NASA has set the ARM effort in the broader context of developing and demonstrating technologies relevant to human missions to Mars and its moons, such as the large solar electric propulsion system that would be used to transport cargo to the Martian vicinity. The ARM mission would help gain experience with deep-space technologies and operations relevant to missions to Mars, including long-duration life support, navigation, rendezvous, docking, and extra-vehicular activity. With the Asteroid Redirect Mission, NASA would gain experience relevant both to developing an infrastructure for possible missions to the lunar surface and to missions deeper into space, ultimately to Mars and its moons.

The Planetary Society sees the ARM initiative as one—but only one—step in achieving the goal of its 2008 Roadmap, humans traveling to Mars. We hope for a series of increasingly ambitious deep space missions during the 2020s, establishing an exploratory cadence that will carry explorers away from our home planet. For all the above reasons, we support ARM, with the condition that it soon undergo a full cost and technical evaluation, as an initial step in a new era of U.S.-led discovery and space achievement.

See other posts from May 2014


Or read more blog entries about: Space Policy, future technology, Future Mission Concepts, asteroids, human spaceflight, Planetary Society Political Advocacy, the Moon, Planetary Society People, rockets


Arbitrary: 05/27/2014 03:05 CDT

Aaaw no! Too small a rock to be of any signicance to science, mining or planetary defence. This is such a worthless mission and it WILL NOT HAPPEN. Planetary Society put a guy in W.DC and surprise surprise he comes up with advocacy of loser missions because they cost billions and billions and will never take place. That's just sad corruption.

Andrew Castillo: 05/27/2014 03:24 CDT

This mission is something that can be done robotically at a fraction of the cost of a manned mission. In fact it already is, OSIRIS-REX. And it does not bring any of the excitement of a Moon or Mars landing. I do not see this president pushing this mission and the next administration will definitely kill it.

Casey Dreier: 05/27/2014 03:26 CDT

Arbitrary: As I mentioned in our post, this represents a consensus view of the Board, which includes ex-NASA officials, the founder of the Space Policy Institute at GWU, industry leaders, etc. I'm not sure how to address your other points. ARM is a human spaceflight mission to build the technologies to go to Mars that is achievable within realistic budgets in the near future. Science will occur from the mission, as it did in Apollo. I personally look at the opportunity cost: what's lost by pursuing ARM? At the moment, nothing else is feasible that preserves the balance within the agency.

Casey Dreier: 05/27/2014 03:28 CDT

Andrew: The nice thing is that the first part of the mission is robotic and essentially independent as NASA is rebuilding its human spaceflight capability. The other important point to note is that neither a Moon nor Mars landing will happen in the same period we're talking about. Is nothing more exciting than ARM? Or, as was previously proposed, astronauts orbiting the Moon with no other destination?

Tor Larsson: 05/27/2014 03:43 CDT

Casey, you're now the expert on "concensus" and "financing". I'm just commenting on how utterly anti-scientific and useless that phantasy project is. And I am telling you that it will never happen. It will never happen. The meteoroide redirect mission fails because it is: - Too small to be of any mining relevance. - Too small to be of any planetary defence relevance. - Too small to be of any scientific relevance. Most other asteroids will be as unique as this speciment. - Too dangerous to be a target for human space flight! It will never happen. We might go back to the Moon. We might go to Mars. But towing a meteoroid to lunar orbit, that won't happen. Just empty politicians words. Won't happen. How much do you bet?

Casey Dreier: 05/27/2014 03:48 CDT

Tor: Please see my previous comments to address your points. But also, nothing is set in stone, but that's the same for many programs, including Europa, WFIRST, Commercial Crew, etc. We work to *make* them happen, and ARM is one that deserves that support as well, as long as the costs are well-known and the mission steps NASA towards humans to Mars.

Marcel : 05/27/2014 03:57 CDT

The deposition of meteoroids at stable Lagrange points like EML4 or EML5 by light sails or other robotic vehicles is a good idea. The oxygen, water, and carbon resources could eventually be utilize to reduce the cost of human space travel. But, again, that would be a robotic mission with nothing to do with human space travel until reusable space vehicles are developed and deployed within cis-lunar space.

Tor Larsson: 05/27/2014 05:12 CDT

Casey Dreier, your contribution to planetary science has been GREAT! Budget numbers prove it. You succeded. I didn't think you would, but you did. And that's great for science. Thank you! But now this meteoroid thingy... You could take a few well deserved days off and hug a piece of meteoroid in some regional natural museum. You could try to push it with your flashlight too if you want. But that cannot be the focus of NASA in our time. It won't happen because it is stupid. I'm telling you, it won't happen! Don't fool yourself. Ignore it and go on to something useful, please, you're too valuable to be wasted on this whatever nothingness.

Joe DeLoe: 05/27/2014 07:19 CDT

The blind, name-calling hate that this program engenders in some reminds me of global warming denial. Yes, this asteroid would be too small to mine, would not be threatening to the Earth and would have a scientific value that few of us in this forum can accurately assess. So? The point is that this is the only human mission we are going to be able to afford at the moment, and it is a step toward being able to do more. The alternative is to let our human space-flight capability further stagnate while people yell "Moon first", or "Mars now", and so go to neither. I don't froth at my 4 year old and insult him with angry, incomplete sentences, when he is only able climb half-way up a ladder. He's doing what he can with what capabilities he has; he will do better as he gets experience. Similarly, ARM is this country doing what it can with the capabilities it has now. It is not what any of us were promised 30 years ago, and that is disappointing, but it is a pragmatic attempt to the end the stagnation. Screaming "No!" is not helping.

Douglass: 05/27/2014 08:46 CDT

The only thing that is (sorta) right about ARM is that it's something for SLS and Orion to do. Everything else about it is wrong. For asteroidal science, it's a hugely expensive way to sample and inspect an asteroid, and the one we'd be doing it with is a single one that is totally random. The science community simply isn't interested in it, except in the spinoff that NASA spends some money on asteroids. But yep, science is a deservedly low priority for it. As a planetary defense strategy, the SEP tractor is a good thing to test, except that the bag and capture strategy we'd use would be totally inappropriate for a dangerously sized rock. As an exercise in long duration spaceflight in cis-lunar space well, geez, you don't need a rock to do that! No, this concept isn't just wrong. In most respects it's embarrassingly wrong. And now these arguments are being compared to, duh, global warming denial. Wrong again. No, this isn't blind, name calling hate. It's about solid arguments, made with eyes wide open. I don't hate it. I'm just embarrassed by it. If someone wants to counter with solid arguments, have at it.

reader: 05/27/2014 10:04 CDT

It would be really interesting to see a good space journalist to do a balanced survey among the involved science community - bringing out both the pro and con arguments. Bonnie Buratti, Nancy Chabot , Mark Sykes ..

Joe DeLoe: 05/28/2014 12:36 CDT

Douglass, So you are embarrassed by ARM. Interesting. Let's take your points one-by-one. ARM is something for SLS and Orion to do. Yes, it is. If we don't keep the human spaceflight going and lose that expertise, it will be that much harder to rebuild to get to other destinations that you obviously prefer. It is a "hugely expensive way to sample an asteroid". Sure it is. But that isn't really the underlying goal of ARM, is it? Adding your own goals, and then attacking them is a strawman fallacy. The goal, broadly put, is to maintain and develop our capability to go farther in space, given the constrained budget outlook. The "science community isn't interested in it". Well, I've read that some scientists, who have their own targets in mind, have panned it. But I really doubt there is no interest in returning a pristine chunk of regolith from the formation of the solar system. I agree with "reader's comments. It would be useful to see a balanced survey of the science community on this topic. But even if there were minimal interest, it again is not really the goal of ARM to maximize the scientific return per dollar. The intent is to enable us to do more later on - it is a stepping stone. "The SEP tractor is a good thing to test". Yes, it is. Additionally, since SEP or NEP are the most efficient propulsion methods we have, humans are eventually going to need to learn to deal with the "milli-gee" effect from constant thrusting. Do the weak convective forces in the cabin, tanks, etc. cause problems? How is the human body affected by milli-gee? Are EVA's hampered? It seems to me like a short duration mission is a good, reasonably safe first step. Part 2 below...

Joe DeLoe: 05/28/2014 12:38 CDT

"The bag and capture strategy is totally inappropriate for a dangerous sized rock." Yes, but that is another strawman argument. There are other methods (See the Planetary Society's laser bees idea, for one example) to deal with a dangerous rock. If we start mining asteroids, we will not bring back the entire thing, just the richest parts. To me, it seems to be like gathering and returning those high-value ores/carbon/ices in a light-weight bag (vs. some heavy, hard capsule) is a very worthwhile capability to develop. "A exercise in long-duration flight does not need a trip to an asteroid". So you'd rather try this to an empty point in space? That'll sound like a "Bridge to nowhere" to the public, and perhaps appropriately so. The other targets that we'd all prefer, like Mars, just aren't in the near-term budget (at least with NASA doing it).

Peter Buchan: 05/28/2014 07:53 CDT

Aaaw no! Arbitrary In order to judge the scientific significence of an object by it's size. How big is your crystal ball?

Skip Morrow: 05/28/2014 07:59 CDT

I have mixed feelings about the AR mission. I desperately want us to do something HSF related, but I am not sure this is the one. What aspects of this mission will prepare us better for manned missions to Mars? Is it just the long duration? Certainly it's not the rendezvous part, or the bagging and towing parts. Now, I get it that sometimes we don't know what we will learn, and what will apply elsewhere, so in that regard, perhaps there will be lessons learned. What if we did something like a small space station in a highly elliptical orbit around earth? We would have to deal with radiation and long duration. Both of those are huge concerns. They would use Orion and SLS, and the habitation module, which gives them purpose. And they are still close enough to earth for semi-rapid return if needed.

Douglass: 05/28/2014 09:06 CDT

Joe, let's get your arguments back on track. First of all, I was never attacking the science of ARM as a "strawman fallacy". I was just pointing out that the science was specious AND pointed out that science wasn't an important goal of the mission. So don't twist my words, please. As to the speciousness of the science, I'm glad you've read that "some scientists" have panned it. You might want to read some more, in particular the report by the SBAB, which is NASA's premier independent advisory group about asteroid science. They reviewed ARM in some detail, and were largely unsupportive of it, at least to the extent that it was going to cost SMD any money. So much for something that isn't an important goal. Yep, an SEP is a very useful tool for many of our efforts in space. But you don't need to send up humans to meet it to test it out. Now, effects of milligee on human bodies? Excuse me, but the SEP isn't going to be pushing on people. It's just going to be pushing on a rock. BTW, there is zero interest in the "effects of milligee" on human bodies that can't be satisfied on ISS. What are you thinking of? References appreciated. Ah, so for you, the bag strategy is about bringing back pieces of an asteroid for mining? Funny, but the commercial firms that are interested in mining asteroids aren't proposing this strategy, and NASA is certainly not advertising this mission as testing out ways to return mineable rocks. As to exercising abilities on long-duration spaceflight, you need a rock to avoid going to an "empty point in space"? Gee, what rock did ISS go to? Pretty empty up there in LEO, and look at what ISS has accomplished about exercising abilities in space. I'm not aware that Congress, or the American public, is calling ISS a "bridge to nowhere" (well, not because it didn't go to a rock). continued below

Anonymous: 05/28/2014 09:18 CDT

continued from above OK, let's talk about rocks. Yep, in the historical context of exploration, rocks are important. The Moon and Mars are rocks, but one is really inconvenient, and the other is closer, but still a gravity well. So hey, we're hearing, let's grab a small rock and drag it to where it's convenient! Rocks make hearts go aflutter to human space flight advocates including, I'm afraid, the Planetary Society. So how to we gain experience in deep space but doing useful stuff without rocks? How about a hab near the Moon, perhaps at a Lagrange point or even an ARM-type SDRO. From there, astronauts could teleoperate equipment all over the lunar surface with small time delay, exercising skills that will be profoundly important for Mars exploration. Eventually, that hab could be a depoting facility and a "Gateway" for human trips to the lunar surface, as well as to deep space. The NASA Decadal Planning Team envisioned that a dozen years ago, where such a hab would be a profoundly useful place to build and supply Mars-bound craft. Yes, ARM is a desperate exercise to set hearts aflutter by putting a rock where a human can caress it and (with some difficulty) leave a footprint. With regard to the human space flight part of ARM, that's mostly what it's about. The non-HSF parts of ARM -- SEP development and small body surveys, are in themselves, profoundly important activities. If we weren't spending an arm and a leg on caressing rocks, we could do those so much better.

Douglass: 05/28/2014 09:21 CDT

Oops, quick edit to the above. It's SBAG (Small Bodies Assessment Group), not SBAB. My apologies.

Fred Thurber: 05/28/2014 09:35 CDT

I am not too keen on this mission, especially if it robs funds from planetary science. It seems a bit like a stunt to create interest / funding for manned missions and justify the SLS. If it can be done without effecting the planetary program, then sure it is OK, but not otherwise.

Supernaut: 05/28/2014 02:37 CDT

I tepidly support, this ARM program. Recall this is not about Science, it is about advancing the manned space program, not about getting the most science for the buck. But, like Apollo, we should be getting some science out of it. As an aside, I hope SLS will also be used for a Europa mission!

Bernhard Britz: 05/29/2014 02:32 CDT

Electrical Propulsion is the key to outer space, manned or unmanned. Solar Power, however, will not be sufficient for sustainable missions. We have nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers, so why not build nuclear spacecraft? If we seriously recognize that such space activity is our future after all, we will have to set off now.

Douglass: 05/29/2014 05:21 CDT

To all tepid supporters. May I suggest that advancing the manned space program can be done in many ways, and the rationale for this is pretty poor. The idea, I guess, is that we need to look for something to do, and once we find something we might be able to do, we brand it with a "worth doing" label, whether or not it really is. As to robbing planetary science, nah, it probably won't do that. But it robs the human space flight program of the ability to proudly point to doing things that need doing. If you want to send humans to Mars, grabbing a boulder and touching it is NOT going to help. Period. The Planetary Society ought to endorse development of a capable SEP, and certainly should endorse a deep survey for asteroidal threats. It might well endorse a program to use that SEP to mitigate asteroidal threats. It could endorse a human space flight program that specifically tests long duration capabilities BEO. But touching a random rock?? We're better than this, and so is the Planetary Society.

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