NASA’s Space Launch System Faces Possible 2017 Launch Delay, ARM Target Issues

A series of reports highlight the challenges NASA faces in making progress with its plans for the Space Launch System over the next ten years.  Only days days before SLS program manager Todd May told an audience at the annual Mars Society convention that the mega booster is still on track for a late 2017 launch, another NASA official advised that there was still a significant chance of delay with the booster’s payload, the Orion spacecraft. Specifically, the most immediate issues lies with the service module for EFT-1 which is being supplied to NASA by the European Space Agency.

ESA is currently battling weight problems with the service module, which could lead to a later than planned delivery to Cape Canaveral. Consequently, even if the booster is ready on time, the odds appear to be increasing that it will not see a first flight until sometime in 2018 instead. One way or another, the larger challenge with the SLS/Orion combination lies in what to do with it once it is ready to fly, and that’s where another issue comes up.

When President Obama canceled a return to the Moon on the grounds thay “we’ve been there” he substituted a plan to visit a near Earth asteroid  sometime in the 2020’s.  The problem with that plan however, was the lack of necessary hardware to actually support a long duration trip into deeper space. Thus was born the idea of ARM, the Asteroid Redirect Mission to capture either a small asteroid, or a piece of a larger one, and bring it into lunar space, and thereby within range of the Orion capsule as it is currently construed. Among other challenges, which happen to include Congressional hostility to the plan, as well as a cool response from the scientific community, comes the somewhat ironic announcement that of the six asteroids which present viable targets for the mission, two will have already been visited robotically by the time astronauts climb aboard Orion to go take a look.

One of the potential asteroids. Itokawa has already been the subject of a space first when it was visited in 2005 by the Japanese Hayabusa  probe which soft landed on the peanut shaped body and subsequently returned granular samples in a screaming hot re-entry to Australia’s Woomera desert in 2010.

Asteroid Itokawa Credit: JAXA

Asteroid Itokawa
Credit: JAXA

Another possible subject, Bennu, is the target of the Osiris-REx mission scheduled to launch in 2016, returning samples in 2023. Aware of the potential embarrassment, the agency is likely to give further scrutiny to each of the remaining asteroids with an eye toward selecting a target which at least has the benefit of being new. Of the remaining four, three are “free-flyers,” asteroids 10 meters or smaller which could be captured intact in the 2023-2025 time-frame. The fourth, like Itokawa and Bennu, contains larger boulders which could be plucked from the surface of the host body and returned.

The report raises an interesting issue inherent in the plan. No matter which asteroid or fragment is eventually captured and delivered to lunar orbit, it will be by definition have been “visited”  before astronauts arrive on station.  Given the time, complexity and expense of the proposed capture procedure, NASA will have ample time and extended close contact to study the asteroid on the long, slow trip back to the local neighborhood. In other words, unless planners deliberately “dumb down” the science along the way by excluding instruments from the capture spacecraft, the additive value of any astronaut visit is likely to be negligible.  It is perhaps for this reason that according to a separate report, NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group has suggested that none of the funding for ARM should come from the science budget.

If support (and budget) for ARM does not coalesce quickly, NASA has an altogether different problem in finding a substitute mission for the booster and spacecraft on which it is staking America’s future in space exploration. According to a GAO report released earlier this summer, which is only the latest is series of reports calling into question the program’s viability “the SLS program has not yet defined specific mission requirements beyond the second flight test in 2021 or defined specific plans for achieving long-term goals.”


Posted in: Asteroids, NASA, SLS / Orion

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