Advisory Team Suggests NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission Needs Some Recon

Artist's Impression of ARM Plan B Image Credit NASA

Artist’s Impression of ARM Plan B
Image Credit NASA

For many of who take pride in NASA, it is embarrassing enough that the agency which once went to the Moon, and now says it is on a “Journey to Mars” has as its only defined human exploration goal, the Asteroid Redirect Mission. ARM’s objective, radically reduced from the original 2010 proposal of sending astronauts to visit an asteroid in its native orbit, is to instead “visit” a small boulder which has been plucked from the surface of an asteroid and dragged to the vicinity of the Moon. Imagine then, how embarrassing it might be, that if some 15 years later, ARM failed because the robotic mission to retrieve the space rock was unable to free it from the surface of the asteroid in the first place.

An advisory team chartered by NASA to examine ARM has been thinking of such things, as well as any number of slightly less disastrous scenarios such as loss of valuable science data due to increased outgassing as the rock heats up as it nears lunar space, or contamination by Orion. The Final Report of the Formulation Assessment and Support Team (FAST) regarding the target asteroid, which is irresistibly named 2008 EV5, was released on Friday, and among the additional recommendations was the somewhat prudent notion that it might be smart to begin with a precursor mission.

“Characterization Precursor: A precursor to the ARRM target body in order to scout for boulders and provide surface and boulder physical characteristics would effectively increase the characterization phase duration and should be investigated further. This precursor could be a dedicated mission or be co-manifested with the ARV, arriving at the target earlier. Additional benefits would be gained if the precursor had some means of interacting with the surface to provide geotechnical data.”

The complete report is here, and gives a pretty good insight into how little we actually know about any given class of asteroids beyond what can be gleaned from radar observations. With NASA’s automated OSIRIS-Rex mission scheduled to launch later this year for a 2018 asteroid encounter and 2023 sample return, that may soon be changing. It could also spell trouble for ARM, which has found little traction in Congress or within the scientific community.

Posted in: Asteroids, NASA

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