To meet NASA's goal of sending humans to Mars, the agency plans to test a number of new spaceflight capabilities in the 2020s through an innovative mission to redirect an asteroid to orbit the moon and send humans to explore it. Six new papers by NASA engineers and officials detail ways this Asteroid Redirect Mission and planned advances in new technologies will directly enable the ambitious human Journey to Mars.
The papers are being presented at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) taking place in Toronto, Sept. 29 through Oct. 3. The papers are available at the Asteroid Initiative Related Documents page.
NASA plans to launch an ARM robotic spacecraft to rendezvous with, capture and redirect an asteroid mass near the end of this decade. The spacecraft will redirect it to a stable orbit around the moon called a "Distant Retrograde Orbit." Astronauts aboard NASA's Orion spacecraft, launched from a Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, will explore the asteroid in the mid-2020s.
Within the papers, authors offer a current status of work taking place across the country to examine options for these robotic and crewed missions. This includes advanced Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP)—one of the critical technologies needed to send larger payloads into deep space and to the Mars system.
SEP creates thrust powered by solar arrays, which transforms sunlight into electromagnetic fields that accelerate and expel charged atoms (ions). This is a very efficient way to power a spacecraft and significantly cuts down on the amount of propellant a spacecraft needs to carry, which can be heavy and expensive to launch from Earth. Current studies at NASA detailed in the papers are examining ways SEP will be used to power the ARM robotic mission.
NASA is working on two mission concepts for asteroid capture: one would fully enclose an asteroid using an inflatable system and the other would capture a boulder off of a much larger asteroid using robotic arms. The agency will choose one of the two concepts in late 2014. The new papers provide details on these concepts under study and ways their technologies can be advanced for future missions to the Mars system.
The ARM crewed mission, in which astronauts will explore the redirected asteroid mass around the moon, provides unique opportunities to test human spaceflight capabilities as well. The papers detail current work underway at NASA to upgrade spacesuits in preparation for the first spacewalks in deep space since the 1960s and farther from Earth than ever before. Concepts for a new common suite of hardware for rendezvous and docking between vehicles is also in development, which also will allow the crew aboard Orion to attach to the ARM robotic spacecraft. This capability could be used in the future to connect Orion with a deep space habitat bound for the Mars system, or even cargo and fuel depots positioned in strategic places, like lunar orbit.
Astronauts returning home with samples of Mars will hold a treasure trove of research scientists will study to unlock new knowledge about Mars and the solar system's history. Returning samples of an asteroid first will help astronauts and NASA develop the right tools and techniques for safe sample collection and containment.
This early experience with raw materials could also help advance in-situ resource utilization—the ability to find and use natural resources beyond Earth. Rocky bodies like asteroids and our moon could hold enough oxygen and hydrogen to create breathable air, drinkable water or even components for rocket fuel. There also is growing interest in the commercial space industry to potentially mine asteroids for resources in the future. As the papers look ahead to ways ARM will extend spaceflight capabilities for human missions to Mars, some also outline the additional benefits ARM represents, like these future commercial activities.
Likewise, ARM holds new promise for international cooperation both in the mission and on the Journey to Mars it will help enable. Overall, the papers describe how ARM will help test new technologies using existing capabilities in an affordable, compelling way as the agency takes steps toward the ultimate goal of human missions to Mars.
Find out more information about NASA's Asteroid Redirect Mission.