Casey DreierMay 27, 2014

The Planetary Society Supports NASA's Asteroid Initiative

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.

Keck ARM concept
Keck ARM concept The original Asteroid Redirect Mission concept, as envisioned by the Keck Institute, uses a large capture bag to enclose a small asteroid. NASA has since opted for a claw mechanism that would pluck a small boulder off the surface of a larger asteroid.Image: Rick Sternbach / Keck Institute for Space Studies

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.

The Time is Now.

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