[Up-front Disclaimer: My space startup is being paid under the Asteroid Redirect Mission BAA to do a study contract on one possible way to do the Option B mission. Even though we’re not dependent on follow-on work, I figured it was worth stating up front my potential biases.]
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a major NASA program as nearly-universally disliked as the Asteroid Redirect Mission. Some people hate it for ad hominem reasons like the fact that the Obama Administration has been pushing it, or the supposition that Darth Garver (as they see her) came up with the idea. I’ve also heard a few anti-SLS/Orion people refer to it as a “pathetic attempt to reengineer the Solar System to make it handicapped-accessible for SLS and Orion”, or to come up with something for SLS and Orion to do that is more inspiring for them than endless Apollo-8 rehashes (but without the subsequent Apollo missions to follow). Ironically, I think some of the pro-SLS/Orion fanboys on the internet who hate it are afraid that ARM doesn’t really need SLS or Orion (which is true to some extent–in a NASA where Human Spaceflight was done more with PI-led, competitively selected, not-overly-politically-driven missions, I bet few PI’s would be suggesting SLS or Orion for this mission). Some of the Small Bodies scientists seem to hate it because they see it coming from the human spaceflight side, and think the whole thing could be done better without humans involved, and it wasn’t invented there anyway. All told, lots of people find lots of reasons to hate this mission.
But I wanted to provide 10 reasons why a mission like ARM might be actually be worthwhile:
- Adding a new, even more accessible moon to the Earth-Moon System: A lot of people fixate on the fact that we’re going to spend all of this money for a couple of astronauts to go out to a rock in lunar orbit, climb over it for a few days, and bring some samples back. What they conveniently ignore is that >99.5% of the material brought back will still be there, orbiting the moon for the next several hundred to several thousand years, in a fashion that is easily revisitable for a long time (docking adapter pre-attached, and at least for a while still attitude stabilized). And this new moon would be about as hard to get to as L1/L2. Which means that yes, future missions to it using a lightly modified CC vehicle are totally possible.
- Providing an ideal testbed for Asteroid ISRU development: Many people, including many of my friends, see the asteroids as the premier source of vast quantities of off-world resources. But while there are no shortage of low-TRL concepts for how to extract resources from asteroids, actually testing those out isn’t going to be easy. I think testing will be much easier when you have the ability to send people and robots, when you’re close enough that teleoperation of robotics is an option, and when you have frequent repeat visit opportunities where you can try new approaches, and where you can do your testing in a microgravity or near microgravity environment, like you would have at an asteroid. I’m sure prospective asteroid miners like DSI or Planetary Resources wouldn’t complain about having one or more easy-to-access testbeds to work with.
- Providing a much larger sample quantity to work with than other existing or proposed missions: While scientists may be happy spending $800M to return 60g of material from an asteroid (OSIRIS-REx), and can likely tease out all sorts of information from that two Tablespoons worth of material, ISRU development needs a lot more material to work with. Even the smallest of Option B concepts I’ve seen brings back tens of tonnes of material, both rocky and regolith, which should be plenty to work with for ISRU development.
- Providing a good way of testing out a man-tended deep space habitat: As was reported by Jeff Foust at SpaceNews, one of the ideas NASA is looking at incorporating into ARM is attaching a prototype deep space habitat (possibly commercially derived if the NextSTEP BAA leads somewhere useful). This would allow visits of up to 60 day duration by crews of up to 4. While there are other ways you could test something like this (such as L1/L2 gateways), testing it in an operational environment would be useful. As would demonstrating the ability to do long-term habitation in close proximity to an asteroid.
- Demonstrating large-scale Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) systems: This is one of NASA’s main interests in the ARM mission–in the land of expensive launch vehicles, very high Isp propulsion like you can get with SEPs can make many missions a lot more affordable. Even with low-cost earth-to-orbit transportation, SEPs probably make sense for a wide range of missions. Demonstrating the ability to use large-scale SEPs for tugging huge objects in heliocentric space, and performing precision injection maneuvers, etc. might be very useful. We already have a fair deal of experience with small SEP systems, but doing these sort of missions with 100kW+ class SEP systems can be pretty useful.
- Demonstrating Planetary Defense Techniques: If something like “Option B” (the grab a boulder option) is selected, NASA is interested in demonstrating the Enhanced Gravity Tractor method for deflecting the parent asteroid (see slides 27-29 of this presentation on Option B). Learning how to deflect potentially hazardous asteroids is probably one of the more worthwhile things NASA could be spending money on right now, and providing a way of getting real hands-on experience applying those techniques would be very useful. We have lots of theory on how this would work, but getting experience with a real, lumpy, non-idealized asteroid of significant (>100m) size would be really useful. And contra some of their critics, using a “Rube Goldberg arcade claw” to pick up a boulder and increase your spacecraft mass by 5-10x is a great way of allowing you to get measurable results in a reasonable amount of time.
- Developing Technologies for a Phobos/Deimos Large Sample Return: One of the keys to affordable exploration and settlement of Mars will be determining if Phobos and/or Deimos have water in them, and if so, figuring out how to extract it efficiently. Having a large source of propellant feedstocks available in Mars orbit (for supersonic retropropulsion on landing, hydrogen feedstock for surface ISRU, and earth-return propellant) could significantly reduce the amount of propellant needed for both round-trip and one-way Mars missions. If Option B is selected, and if it designed properly, it would be possible to use the same hardware (with slightly modified CONOPS) to capture and return a decent sized (>1 tonne) sample to lunar DRO for evaluation and hopefully ISRU process development/debugging. A manned Phobos and/or Deimos mission is something I strongly support in the future, but if they had enough info that they could be setting up a propellant extraction facility while they’re there (that we’ve already pilot-tested in cislunar space so we know it has a high probability of working), that would just be awesome.
- Providing the Beginnings of a Lunar Gateway?: It turns out that getting to and from Lunar DRO, and getting to/from the lunar surface from a Lunar DRO aren’t massively different from getting to/from Earth-Moon L1 or L2. The orbital dynamics is a bit more complex, but the propellant and travel times are relatively similar. And some lunar DROs can be long-term (centuries or millennia) stable without active stationkeeping. While if we were ready for going straight to the Moon (I’m actually a bit of a Moon-Firster believe-it-or-not), L1 or L2 might be slightly preferable to a lunar DRO as a location for a lunar gateway, if we did something like ARM, with the habitat module, you’d already have a de-facto start to a lunar gateway. One that will likely be setup (by NASA or follow-on efforts) with ISRU hardware, which would likely include at least rudimentary LOX/LH2 and/or LOX/Methane storage and handling capabilities (after all, if they’re going for a carbonaceous chondrite sample, extracting water will be a key part of what they’d be trying to prove). While this wouldn’t likely provide anywhere near enough fuel storage for a Constellation-class mission, it might provide enough propellant to refuel a “Golden Spike” class lander. And even if the asteroid itself only yields a mission or two or three worth of propellant, the tanks and handling equipment would be there and it could make shift as a miniature depot for earth-launched and eventually lunar-derived propellants. Lots of details have to be done right to make this feasible, but it’s possible that ARM could be done in a way that make future lunar missions easier.
- Providing More Experience with On-Asteroid Operations: If the Rosetta/Philae mission should tell us anything, it’s that there’s still a ton to learn, from an engineering standpoint, about how to operate successfully on the surface of large, low-gravity objects like asteroids or comets. While we’ll continue to get some small-scale experience using other robotic missions, and while a manned mission to a free-range asteroid will also provide a good way to get more data, ARM will likely extend our knowledge about how to do operations like these safely with large objects, and would likely provide good data increasing the likelihood of success of future manned missions to free-range asteroids.
- Leaving Something Permanent: One of the saddest things about the Apollo missions is that they didn’t leave anything permanent that made future missions any easier. When they were canceled all that was left was museum pieces, pictures, and a few hundred kg of rocks. But the nice thing about ARM is that once the asteroid sample has returned to lunar DRO, it’s there. It doesn’t require continued expenditures from NASA for it to stay there. Until we’ve mined every last kg of it, it’s going to be there orbiting the moon, close enough that almost any spacefaring country or business in the world can reach if it wants to. It doesn’t need an ongoing standing army that can be defunded. It doesn’t need a mission control to watch over it 24×7. It doesn’t need some sustaining engineering contract that’s going to suck up significant portions of NASA’s limited human spaceflight budget on an ongoing basis. It’s just there. Ok, if there’s a hab there or a more sophisticated node, it could require ongoing mission support when being used. But if for some reason they decided to stop visiting that node for a while, it would still be there, waiting to be restarted whenever someone cares again, or ready to be handed off to private companies or international partners once NASA is done with it. At least for a few centuries. Having something that accessible and that permanent out there is worth something, at least to me.