Louis D. FriedmanSep 19, 2011

Students Design Human Asteroid Mission in Caltech Space Challenge

I spent much of the past week attending the Caltech Space Challenge, a student-organized international competition to design a human mission to a Near-Earth asteroid. It was a great week, and one of the most positive, upbeat and hopeful programs I have participated in concerning the future of space exploration.

Two students at Caltech dreamed up and organized the competition: Prakhar Mehrotra and Jonathan Mihaly. They engaged mentors from Caltech and JPL, and brought in outstanding space leaders from industry and space agencies to provide background lectures on asteroids, mission design, and human spaceflight. From over 200 applications worldwide, they selected 32 students from 14 countries and brought them to Caltech for a weeklong intensive mission-design competition. The students were divided into two teams, arbitrarily named Explorer and Voyager.

The program was supported by the Keck Institute for Space Studies (KISS) at Caltech and additional sponsors from industry (notably Lockheed-Martin, SpaceX and Orbital) and Caltech donors.

The mission designs that the student teams produced were truly impressive, especially considering that they had only 5 days (and long nights) to come up with them. Their design work was interspersed with guest lectures, a party or two, meals and even, for some, sleep. They had to do a soup-to-nuts design considering the rationale and objectives of the mission, the launch system(s), crew habitat and human factors for life support, propulsion, trajectories, communications, science operations, and even public engagement. I hope their work gets published both in the technical literature and for popular distribution.

Human mission to an asteroid
Human mission to an asteroid Image: NASA

I found the proposed mission designs innovative and thought-provoking. They came up with approaches that suggest that the mission could be carried out with only two launches, or even only one, requiring the heavy-lift Space Launch System. They used solar electric propulsion on slower missions to carry robotic systems, while crews made the journey as fast as possible with chemical propulsion rocket stages. The two designs differed, but not much, since they were both constrained by reality in choosing among the few known asteroids that lend themselves to a practical mission. They were further constrained by setting the goal of accomplishing the mission in the 2025 time period (set by the Obama Administration as the goal for human spaceflight) and by insisting that the necessary robotic precursor and ground-based astronomy work be done before the human mission to know enough about the asteroid to accomplish a reliable and safe mission. The competition was so even that it took several ballots and fine detail to actually prefer one team over the other. There may have been a winner, but I can say for sure there were no losers.

The students were a diverse group: it included about equal numbers of young men and women from 14 countries and many different universities. The local schools -- Caltech, Stanford, and Cal Poly -- were represented, but so were universities in Europe, Asia, Australia, Canada and across the United States. Most, but not all, were graduate students. I was impressed with their capabilities, their brilliance, and their enthusiasm. As I said earlier, this was the most positive and hopeful event I have seen in many years concerning the future of human space flight, and it took place at a time when that future is so clouded and uncertain. Admittedly, this group was self-selected by their interest in the subject, but overwhelmingly they were strong supporters of human space ventures, even invoking the old Apollo spirit.

It was great, and when their work is publicly presented I will call it to everyone's attention. Next week the student workshop will be followed by another KISS workshop, an Asteroid Retrieval Mission Study. This is not a student workshop (although a few students will participate). It will draw upon experts in science and engineering in the aerospace community to consider the practicality and applications of moving a (very small) asteroid from its celestial orbit to a targeted point, perhaps in Earth orbit or to a Sun-Earth Lagrangian point, for further investigation. Such a target could be the first step for humans to take beyond the Moon, a precursor for the human mission to a larger near-Earth asteroid, which itself is a precursor for eventually going to Mars. I am a co-leader of this study, together with Fred Culick of Caltech and John Brophy of JPL. It's a way-out idea, but that is the value of KISS -- to study way-out ideas that might lead to novel missions or technologies for the future.

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