Redirecting NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission to Phobos


A Worthy Goal

A Worthy Goal

A key element of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission, or ARM, is being pushed back one year. According to reports from a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s human exploration and operations committee which took place last week, ARM’s program director Michele Gates said:

“Under the new schedule, the ARM robotic mission would launch in December 2021, instead of December 2020 as previously planned. That would delay later crewed mission by a year as well, to December 2026. “We understand this, we’re accepting this, and we’re folding that into our early preformulation work that we’re beginning to do.”

The one year delay in launching the robotic mission could been seen as adding to the difficulties of an already troubled program which has failed to gain much traction across the scientific, space, and political community. Given that the delay effectively pushes ARM’s human element back to what the space agency calls Exploration Mission 5 or 6, it also raises further questions of just what SLS and Orion will be doing in the time frame between EM-2, the initial crewed mission for the flagship rocket, and the ARM rendezvous flight. EM-2 is now estimated to take place as late as 2023, although an earlier launch is still a possibility.


The latest setback to President Obama’s space policy of pursuing a “flexible path” on what NASA now officially calls its “Journey to Mars” comes during a presidential election year that could ultimately result in a significant rethink of American space policy as a new administration, and a new NASA administrator, ultimately take the reigns.

What becomes of ARM is anyone’s guess, but one intriguing possibility is that rather than dismissing the kludged together concept entirely, NASA actually follow its own marketing and “redirects” the mission from its current target of near Earth asteroid 2008 EV5  to a destination that is far more compelling. Phobos, the largest and innermost of the two moons orbiting Mars is a very attractive target, offering numerous advantages for the long term exploration of the Red Planet, and yet we know precious little about that tiny world, not its even more diminutive companion Deimos.

Whether or not either of Mars’ moons is a justifiable destination for human exploration in advance of landing on the planet itself as some proposed scenarios suggest, a robotic precursor mission with sample return could prove highly useful in determining that fact, while adding credibility to NASA’s “Journey to Mars” narrative. Considering the real possibility that Phobos and Deimos are captured asteroids anyway, neither the spirit, nor the reality of the Obama Administration’s space plans would be compromised any further than they already were when “visiting an asteroid” turned into visiting a rock plucked from an asteroid and brought back to lunar orbit.

Unless SLS/Orion is going to be cancelled entirely, a prospect which some would relish, but others fear would cause another lengthy delay in moving beyond LEO, the only feasible location for initial crewed missions is precisely where NASA is already focused, the “proving ground” of Cis-Lunar space. Having a look at a large sample hauled back from the immediate vicinity of Mars while we are there, would at least suggest that NASA is still on its “Journey.”

Posted in: Mars, NASA

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1 Comment on "Redirecting NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission to Phobos"

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  1. If Phobos is heavily carbonaceous chondrite, and has a lot of H2O as a CC, there’s a lot that might be done with it. It’s close in delta V terms than the surface of the moon, whose polar regions are problematic in delta V terms anyway. I like the “Moon to Moon to Mons” idea a lot:

    There’s much that can be done in parallel: continued Mars surface and orbital missions, probes to land on Phobos and Deimos, sample return from each moon, while using our own moon to help work out a lot of the details of surviving out there. An ARM that’s repurposed to pull a chunk of rubble off Deimos and bring it back to Earth orbit would certainly add some drama.

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