What’s going on with NASA’s asteroid mission?


NASA’s Asteroid Initiative, including an Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) and an Asteroid Grand Challenge (AGC), remains shrouded in fog – at least from some perspectives. (An expanded NASA near-Earth object observation program also plays a role in this initiative. I work as a consultant to this program. Hence, my interest.)

Whether it’s due to an in-the-works update of NASA’s web site or other reasons, information on nasa.gov about the ARM and the AGC is woefully out of date. NASA’s fact sheets about the two projects are dated 2013.

The most up-to-date information on NASA’s Asteroid Initiative web page are a set of papers about various aspects of the initiative, authored by representatives of NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and external collaborators presented at the 2014 International Astronautical Congress in October.

For all the details these recent papers provide, they do not offer answers to the questions being raised about the initiative, particularly the ARM. How much will the ARM cost? What is included in the cost, and what is not? What exactly is the ARM intended to achieve?

A meeting took place at NASA headquarters in December to select which mission design option the Agency would pursue: the ARM “robotic mission reference mission” (bag the asteroid), a.k.a. Option A; or the ARM robotic mission alternate approach (pick a rock off an asteroid), a.k.a. Option B. (The mission descriptions I’m providing links to are dated December 2013.)

NASA scheduled a media teleconference to announce the selection. What NASA ended up announcing was that it had no announcement.  NASA has yet to announce a “downselect” or a date for an announcement.

At a meeting in Phoenix last week, NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group raised questions about ARM – without many satisfactory answers. NASA’s NEO observation program chief, Lindley Johnson, delivered an Asteroid Redirect Mission update” to the group. (NASA ARM Program Director Michele Gates, though not present at the SBAG meeting, was named as co-presenter on Johnson’s slides.) In his update, Johnson described the three “segments” of ARM:

  • Identify: use ground- and space-based assets to detect and characterize potential target asteroids.
  • Redirect: demonstrate solar electric propulsion technology to redirect an asteroid to cislunar space.
  • Explore: A human mission to an asteroid, launched by the Space Launch System/Orion system, to rendezvous with, study and return samples from the redirected asteroid.

(The current objectives of ARM, plus ARM accomplishments since SBAG’s July meeting, are detailed in this SBAG presentation. Some SBAG members did not see much progress made from July to January.)

This week, the NASA Advisory Council, meeting at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, devoted some discussion to ARM. To differing degrees and for various reasons, some NAC members have issues with ARM. For example, Tom Young apparently thinks ARM is a bad idea. Scott Hubbard is concerned that ARM might detract from more than contribute to getting “humans to Mars” (H2M).

Today, NAC Chair Steve Squyres raised the point that the ARM is “national policy.” He asked whether the NAC should forward any finding or recommendation to the NASA Administrator that would be “against policy.” NAC member Hubbard was tasked with drafting a finding and recommendation for the council’s consideration.

After quite a bit of quibbling about wording, the NAC finally agreed on what they would send to the Administrator, based on Scott Hubbard’s draft:

“Finding [tabled, see below]: The Council does not believe that the redirection of an asteroid or part of an asteroid to cislunar space contributes significantly to the national objective of sending humans to Mars. We believe the cost and utilization of important but limited human exploration expertise for asteroid redirection is not justified by the expected low contribution to the humans-to-Mars endeavor.

Recommendation: The ARM mission has two objectives that are important direct contributors to Humans to Mars (H2M): Large scale solar electric propulsion (SEP) and maneuvering in a low gravity environment in deep space. As work on ARM goes forward and costing is completed, focus on a mission architecture that will preserve these two key H2M objectives if the redirection of an asteroid, as we suspect, breaks the cost cap and the project must be descoped.

Major reasons for proposing the recommendation: The specific ARM objective of capturing part or all of a small asteroid contributes little to the long-term goal of H2M, contributes only peripherally to planetary defense, and may add a great deal of cost, resulting in exceeding suggested $1.25B cost cap.

Consequences of not implementing the recommendation: There is a risk that meeting a full set of requirements that includes capturing an asteroid will cause the ARM cost cap to be exceeded, resulting in either a) the cancellation of the entire project, including the very important H2M objectives, or b) the budgetary “goalposts” moving and budget overruns that will threaten other programs.”

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden was present at the NAC meeting during part of the discussion of this recommendation. One NAC member asked him, “Is this [$1.25 billion] an official cost cap?” Bolden replied, “We don’t have an official cost cap…. That is the figure we have drawn out from the team so they wouldn’t go hog-wild…. I think this is a paradigm shift.”

The NAC decided to table the finding, for now. “It’s so important,” Squyres said, “that we do this right and accurately represent a consensus view.” Even though it appears that a majority of members support this finding, while one or two do not, we need to make “a real attempt” to achieve unanimity. Member Tom Young said disagreement seems to be about facts, not words…. The council tentatively plans a Feb. 23 virtual meeting to take up the finding again. The NAC’s next meeting is in April.

At last week’s SBAG meeting, NASA’s Johnson responded to the following finding from SBAG’s July 2014 meeting:

“The Need for a Near-Earth Object Survey. The NASA Authorization Act of 2005, Section 321, cited as the “George E. Brown, Jr. Near-Earth Object Survey Act” directs that “the Administrator shall plan, develop, and implement a Near-Earth Object Survey program to detect, track, catalogue, and characterize the physical characteristics of near-Earth objects equal to or greater than 140 meters in diameter in order to assess the threat of such near-Earth objects to the Earth. It shall be the goal of the Survey program to achieve 90 percent completion of its near- Earth object catalogue (based on statistically predicted populations of near-Earth objects) within 15 years after the date of enactment of this Act.” The stated goal of NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge is “to find all asteroid threats to human populations and know what to do about them,” which is well aligned with the congressional direction to identify potentially hazardous objects. However, no plan has been defined or resourced to achieve the congressional goal by 2020. A dedicated space-based survey telescope would achieve this goal in the shortest period of time. SBAG reiterates that a space-based NEO survey telescope would be a foundational asset, significantly advancing NASA’s human exploration, science, and planetary defense objectives.”

Johnson said the 2005 act’s 2020 goal is the NASA NEO observation program’s current objective. However, this objective can’t be met by 2020 with current resources. While NEO program funding has gone up from $4.5 million in FY 2011 $40 mm in 2014, it’s still not sufficient to scale up the NEO search and discovery rate.

As to the need for a space-based NEO survey telescope, the entire NEO community appears to be in agreement. However, Johnson noted, at $40 million a year, NASA’s NEO program budget is inadequate to fund a mission.

SBAG chair Nancy Chabot commented that a space-based NEO survey telescope should be a top priority for NASA, not just the NEO program or the Planetary Science Division (PSD). Chabot said to PSD director Jim Green that his division is burdened with a task that the small-bodies community thinks should be an “agency-wide” priority. Green responded that he did not yet know what will be in NASA’s fiscal year 2016 budget request.

Another finding from SBAG’s July 2014 meeting was that “the B612 Foundation has been unable to meet scheduled milestones under its Space Act Agreement with NASA for the Sentinel mission. SBAG is concerned that reliance on this initiative has delayed NASA’s ability to move forward on a NEO survey telescope that is competed and optimally designed to address NASA strategic objectives across planetary defense, human exploration, and science.”

LJ responded at SBAG’s January meeting that, “to date NASA has found that reliance on the private sector for a space-based NEO survey has not advanced our progress toward the goals of the (2005 NASA authorization) act. This approach is being re-examined as part of the strategic planning (process) for the NEOOP in 2015.”

Johnson reported that known NEOs now total more than 12,000. The NEO discovery rate is up since 2013, primarily due to the PANSTARRS-1 prototype ground-based NEO survey telescope increasing PANSTARRS survey time from 15 to 100 percent.

For fiscal year 2015, NASA’s NEO program is supporting five search projects (22 percent of budget), five radar projects (12 percent), three data analysis projects (5 percent), 13 characterization projects (8 percent), 12 follow-up projects, five technology development projects, three “studies,” five mitigation studies, and three program support projects.

Thus far, Johnson noted, NASA’s NEO program has not been funded according to what the program needs to achieve assigned goals but according to “what we can afford.”

Stay tuned for the White House budget request for NASA in fiscal year 2016, due out the first week of February.