NASA updates status and timetable of ambitious Asteroid Redirect Mission

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NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) standing committee has presented the NASA Advisory Council with a status update regarding the agency’s direction and execution of the upcoming Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).  Among the prominent updates include confirmation of new target launch dates and information on how NASA will handle partner payloads and the creation of the ARM Investigation Team.

ARM progress update:

While no major aspects of the ARM flights have changed in recent months, NASA and its various centers and partners have made considerable progress in understanding the complexities and needs involved in the two halves of the mission.

Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 14.26.53“ARM has made significant progress over the last year,” stated Ron Ticker, Deputy Program Director for ARM during the recent ARM briefing to the NASA Advisory Council (NAC).

Specifically, scientific payload needs for the robotic portion of the mission (dubbed Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission – ARRM) have begun to materialize, as have the overall planning and pre-launch timeline requirements.

During the course of the briefing, Mr. Ticker confirmed what NASASpaceflight.com previously reported this year regarding ARRM’s and ARCM’s (Asteroid Redirect Crewed Mission) launch dates.

2016-07-07-144818According to Mr. Ticker, “The target launch date [for ARRM] has moved one year to a target launch date in December 2021.  And the availability of the asteroid and the SEP-based spacecraft in cislunar space pushes the crewed mission into 2026.”

A member of the NAC followed up on this point, asking about the correlation between ARM and the stated goal of human missions to Mars in the 2030s.

Specifically, the NAC member wanted to know if there was a time by which the ARM missions must occur – given their classification as technology demonstration missions for eventual deep space flights to Mars – so that the 2030s date for human Mars missions can be maintained.

Mr. Ticker responded that “ARM is the first phase in the journey to Mars. … But all the things we’re doing on ARM need to be accomplished in the 2020s before we go to Mars.”

Bill Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Directorate, added to Mr. Ticker’s answer, noting that the ARCM portion of ARM needed to happen in the 2026 timeframe to maintain the agency’s current goals regarding Orion and timetables for human missions to Mars in the 2030s.

Mr. Gerstenmaier further stated that “We had trouble getting the funding together for this thing.  So this slip of the one year that you see wasn’t caused by technical.  It was really caused by budget availability.  We just didn’t have the budget available to go do this.”

Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 14.25.49Regardless, the one year delay is not expected to have an effect on SLS’s opening manifest, as ARRM is currently slated to launch on a yet-to-be-selected “one of three rockets,” noted Mr. Ticker.

No elaboration was given as to what those “three rockets” are, though SLS, one of SpaceX’s Falcon family of rockets, and Atlas V are understood to be the prime contenders at this time.

Overall, the decision to delay ARRM was taken in February 2016 so that the KDP-B (Key Decision Point – B) meeting participants on 15 July had a more realistic launch date to work with when discussing key elements of the mission’s pre-launch processing.

Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 14.26.44Moreover, since beginning of this year, NASA has received updates from its Small Bodies Assessment group as to the currently preferred target asteroid for ARRM as well as early design study contracts for the robotic spacecraft itself.

In February, ARM managers updated formulation guidance for the ARRM KDP-B (which included robotic mission launch date as well as the readiness date for the crewed mission), had an ARCM operational requirements meeting at the Johnson Space Center, conducted an ARM leadership team strategy meeting on partnerships and engagement, and received the final report from the Formulation Assessment and Support Team (FAST).

Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 14.26.18In April, the Space Technology Mission Directorate performed final contract selection for electric propulsion development, before the agency met for two days in June for an initial ARRM/ARCM safety review before proceeding forward with ARRM spacecraft contractor study final presentations and ARRM strategic international partner intent assessments.

Under the current upcoming events calendar, NASA will undertake two important steps toward the continuation of the ARRM mission on 22 August when it releases a Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) for Investigation Team (IT) membership participation as well as a call for hosted payloads onboard the ARRM spacecraft.

NASA will then update the entire industry on the status of ARM in totality on 1 September 2016.

Call for partner-provided systems and hosted payloads on the ARRM spacecraft:

In total, the BAA call for hosted payloads and systems on ARRM will allow NASA to “provide the resources for payload accommodation with partners providing systems or instruments for investigations or experiments toward partner goals,” states the ARM presentation to NAC.

Screen Shot 2016-03-23 at 12.05.58As Mr. Ticker noted during the NAC briefing, the hosted payloads would “reduce the risks for the robotic mission when it comes to the asteroid as well as capability and technology demonstrations or enhance the scientific return from the robotic mission.”

For the payloads, the HEO ARM presentation document to NAC notes that “NASA will provide accommodations including integration with ARM robotic spacecraft [with] expected total allocations of 50 kg mass, 200 W operational/50 W keep-alive power plus 32 GB data storage and downlink.”

The potential partners will be responsible for submitting payload proposals that are both consistent with ARM’s stated mission goals and objectives and that mesh solidly with the production and launch timelines.

Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 14.27.58Science payloads will also carry a requirement that they do not interfere with the mechanical operations of the asteroid sample retrieval systems of ARRM or the spacecraft’s planetary defense demonstration capabilities.

To this end, NASA is explicitly clear that these hosted payloads will not be mission critical elements to ARRM and that priority consideration will be given to proposed payloads that can assist with the asteroid characterization objectives of the flight.

Furthermore, payloads chosen for inclusion on ARRM will come with an additional benefit of their proposers being offered representation on the ARM IT.

According to the ARM presentation, the current prioritization list for hosted payloads include: Thermal imager for basic boulder/regolith thermal inertia properties and multispectral imaging (broad-band filters) for morphology/composition.

Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 14.26.35Also included on this list are a visible-near infrared spectrometer (~0.4 – 4 micron) to assess hydration; regolith geotechnical property estimation via surface interaction; and acoustic/ultrasonic sensors to provide boulder characterization during and/or after collection during the ARRM.

Additional ARRM prioritized payloads include a free-flyer camera and/or orbit determination asset, surface interaction deployable payloads, In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) deployable assets/experiments, small carry-on impactor, and instruments capable of global radar tomography and near-surface structure characterization with Ground Penetrating Radar.

Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 14.27.49Any payloads that can perform more than one of the ten prioritized items are listed as “preferable.”

At present, final selection of hosted payloads is expected in March/April 2017.

Moreover, as Mr. Ticker stated, there is already expressed international interest regarding potential hosted payloads for ARRM.

“We look at this as not only being a partnership to support NASA objectives, but being able to support our partners’ objectives as well,” stated Mr. Ticker.

ARM Investigation Team (IT):

Critical to the mission’s overall scientific success will be the ARM IT.

Screen Shot 2016-03-23 at 12.04.04As noted by the ARM presentation, “With an initial term of 3-5 years, the IT will assist with the definition and support of investigations for the robotic and crew segments of the ARM in the science, planetary defense, in-situ resource utilization, and capability and technology demonstration domains, as well as provide Program-level and Project-level support.”

The call for participation in ARM IT will be conducted simultaneously with the call for hosted payloads and will take place in two phases.

Phase one will involved the actual call for membership participation, with final selection announcements coming in March/April 2017.

Screen Shot 2016-03-23 at 11.41.08Phase two will be conducted after NASA undertakes the selection of additional payloads for the ARM campaign.

According to the ARM presentation, “IT will participate in the definition, design, development, and operations phases of the ARRM with the goal of maximizing the probability of mission success and knowledge return.”

The ARM IT will span the scope of both ARRM and ARCM and will focus on mission investigations regarding elements of science, planetary defense, asteroidal resources and ISRU, and capability and technology demonstration.

Like its ARM hosted payloads counterpart, the ARM IT “will support ARM Program-level and Project-level functions, provide technical expertise, and support NASA Headquarters interactions with the technical communities.”

(Images: NASA and L2 – including SLS renders from L2 artist Nathan Koga – The full gallery of Nathan’s (SpaceX Dragon to MCT, SLS, Commercial Crew and more) L2 images can be *found here*)

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