Asteroid Dreams, Part 8: Target NEO 2, Pt. 2

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Yesterday I reported on some of the proceedings of the July 9 “Target NEO 2″ Workshop in Washington, D.C., where NASA, industry, and academic experts aired their plans, assumptions, questions, and concerns about the Obama administration’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). Today I’m reporting on the rest of the workshop proceedings.

“Uncertainty drives the ARM proximity operations concept.” This was the word from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Steve Broschart. The current ARM plan calls for building the asteroid retrieval/redirect spacecraft before identifying its target object. “The broad range of primitive-body mission parameters” – mass, orbit, and so on – “and the diversity of mission requirements allow for many different mission-specific approaches to proximity operations,” he said.

NASA Langley Research Center’s Carlos Roithmayer went over asteroid docking, grappling, and capture control options for the ARM, including an “axisymmetric bag,” a robotic system of 3-4 manipulator arms with or without a capture bag, and a mechanism modeled after a Hoberman sphere (something like a collapsible geodesic dome…). (I got lost in Roithmayer’s presentation, which was riddled with references to such obscure things as eigenstructure, eigenvalues, Poincare maps, and nonlinear reality.)

Applied Physics Laboratory NEO expert Cheryl Reed asked whether anyone has conducted an analysis of whether a NEO capture operation such as the one proposed for the ARM concept could break up the asteroid or otherwise render it useless to the mission.

No one at the workshop was aware of such a study.

Another participant asked how precisely the mass of a small asteroid can be estimated. JPL’s Broschart said he wasn’t sure “we care too much” for the purposes of the ARM. The Planetary Science Institute’s Mark Sykes asked how an asteroid-capture spacecraft can be engineered with little certainty about the mass of the object to be captured. Experts on hand agreed that given this uncertainty, it’s likely that the spacecraft will be over-engineered to meet a variety of contingencies. “You need a Plan B,” Another participant observed.

NASA Marshall Space Flight Center’s Dave Folta described the asteroid-capture mission as “an exploration-class demonstrator.” Others asked how a flagship-class (billion-dollar-plus) mission could be called a technology demonstration. They also asked whether this mission would be exempt from NASA’s standard review process, given the tight schedule proposed for it. No clear answer emerged.

One thing that did emerge over the course of this workshop was a consensus that the ARM cannot be completed on time and within budget given the schedule and requirements proposed. Participants discussed what a reasonable cost cap for the ARM might be. Some said it depends on where the money comes from. Some consensus emerged that NASA’s human exploration directorate should pay…. NASA’s Greg Williams, speaking for that directorate, said “I don’t know” where the money will come from or what the cost cap for the mission will be. It’s a fiscal year 2015 budget decision, and the White House is depending on NASA for guidance, he said.

A number of participants talked throughout the day about how to “sell” the ARM to Congress and “the public.” Ex-NASA astronaut Tom Jones commented that the ARM proposal is the only thing NASA can reasonably offer right now to further its long-term human exploration goals. The return on investment in the ARM will be a “new, unique, meaningful destination for human explorers in the next decade.” The long-term payoff from the ARM will be NEO resource use and the commercialization of space-based rocket propellant production.

I was not the only person at this workshop who would question whether the ARM is “reasonable” and whether a human mission to an asteroid is “meaningful.” Claims of a need for exploiting extraterrestrial resources and producing spacecraft propellant in space rest on the questionable assumption that the human settlement and exploitation of space is ethical and necessary.

Jones also asserted that the ARM is a “practical” mission that will be “less challenging and costly” than NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission.

I disagree, and I’ll explain why in a future post.

To wrap up, here’s what I took away from the Target NEO 2 Workshop. Human exploration advocates are behind the ARM. The planetary science community is skeptical. The message from the science community to NASA is: slow down, get real. Even advocates for the mission acknowledged that the mission lacks definition thus far, the proposed schedule for the mission is too aggressive, and mission cost and funding are uncertain.

In a future post, I’ll report on discussions at a July 10-11 meeting of NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group, where the ARM proposal was prominent on the agenda.

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