Asteroid Redirect Mission

A new report chartered by NASA provides input to important areas of robotic mission requirements development and explores the science benefits and potential knowledge gain from the agency’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). NASA will visit an asteroid boulder during the Proving Ground phase of its journey to Mars in cislunar space – the volume of space around the moon featuring multiple stable staging orbits for future deep space missions.

 The ARV captures a boulder from the asteroid’s surface
The ARV captures a boulder from the asteroid’s surface

Read the Report:
Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) Final Report

Data from the Formulation Assessment and Support Team (FAST) report will help with the development and design of the robotic portion of the mission, spacecraft, and boulder capture. The report answers questions posed by engineers developing requirements, including the origins of the reference “parent” asteroid from which a multi-ton boulder will be collected, boulder spatial and size distributions, geotechnical properties, robotic handling of the selected boulder, and crew safety and containment considerations.

Also included in the report are investigations that could provide additional benefit from the mission, through potential partner provided sensors, subsystems, or candidate operations. The work of the FAST focused on science, planetary defense, asteroidal resources and in-situ resource utilization, and capability and technology demonstrations. The expert team’s priorities were put into categories based on their benefits and relevance to ARM and NASA goals.

“We received really comprehensive responses to all of the questions we posed to the FAST,” said Dr. Michele Gates, ARM program director. “The findings in this report have been particularly helpful as we develop requirements and system design for the robotic spacecraft. We’ve learned a lot about the asteroid’s characteristics, which will be important for the capture system that will collect the asteroid and even for handling and containment techniques that the astronauts will have to practice before sampling it.”

NASA issued a membership call to the public last year to create the FAST and draft the report. The ARM FAST consisted of primarily non-NASA participants who participated in requirement formulation efforts during the initial development phase of the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM). The agency ultimately selected 18 engineers and scientists out of 100 applicants from academia and industry to work with three NASA leaders on the report.

Orbit around the moon
The ARV demonstrates planetary defense on a hazardous-size asteroid before it begins its
transit toward a stable orbit around the moon.

“We had originally planned to select approximately 12-15 members for the FAST,” said Dan Mazanek, Senior Space Systems Engineer at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia and ARM Mission Investigator. “However, due to the large number of exceptionally qualified applicants and the diversity needed to support the ARRM Requirements Closure TIM, we decided to expand the team to a total of 18 members.”

NASA released a draft of the report in November 2015 for public comment before finalizing the report.

“The asteroid community’s response to the membership call was astounding,” said Gates. “We’ve made a conscientious effort over the past few years to encourage external participation in this mission, and this FAST is a brilliant result of those efforts. It is remarkable that the team was able to collaborate at such a rapid pace and provide us with the many valuable inputs we received.”

As the first mission to robotically capture an asteroid mass and deliver it to an orbit around the moon where astronauts can investigate it, the Asteroid Redirect Mission uniquely transcends and combines traditional robotic and human exploration mission formulation processes. This coupling has garnered significant interest from the science and human exploration communities, allowing NASA to leverage the world’s top scientific and engineering minds throughout the planning of the ARM and the journey to Mars.

Investigating the asteroid boulder
The astronauts will conduct future spacewalks to investigate the asteroid boulder before returning to Earth with samples.

The astronauts conduct spacewalks to investigate the asteroid boulder before returning to Earth with samples.

Feb. 18, 2016
Editor: Erin Mahoney

SOFIA Begins Fourth Year of Observations Targeting Asteroids and More

NASA’s “flying” telescope, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) aboard a highly modified Boeing 747SP jetliner, began its fourth series of science flights on Feb. 3, 2016.

This operational period, known as “Cycle 4,” is a one-year-long observing period in which SOFIA is scheduled for 106 flights between now and the end of January 2017.

NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA)
NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) takes off from Palmdale, California at sunset. SOFIA is a partnership of NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR).
Credits: NASA / Greg Perryman

“The Cycle 4 program will make more than 550 hours of observations,” said Pamela Marcum, NASA’s SOFIA Project Scientist. “We’ll be studying objects spanning the full gamut of astronomical topics including planets, moons, asteroids and comets in our solar system; star and planet formation; extrasolar planets and the evolution of planetary systems; the interstellar medium and interstellar chemistry; the nucleus of the Milky Way galaxy, and nearby normal and active galaxies.”

SOFIA’s instruments observe infrared energy – one part of the electromagnetic spectrum, which includes visible light, x-rays, radio waves and others. Many objects in space, for example newborn stars, emit almost all their energy at infrared wavelengths and are undetectable when observed in ordinary visible light. In other cases, clouds of gas and dust in space block visible light objects but allow infrared energy to reach Earth. In both situations, the celestial objects of interest can only be studied using infrared facilities like SOFIA.

“During the February third flight, the target objects ranged from a young planetary system around the naked-eye star Vega, only 25 light years from us, to an infant star 1,500 light years away in the Orion star forming region,” said Erick Young, SOFIA’s Science Mission Operations Director, describing the science conducted on Cycle 4’s inaugural flight. “We also observed a supermassive black hole hidden behind dense dust clouds in the center of a galaxy 170 million light years away.”

Scientists from the University of Georgia, University of Arizona, University of Texas at San Antonio, and the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, plus their collaborators from institutions in the United States and Europe, obtained data using the Faint Object Infrared Camera for the SOFIA Telescope (FORCAST) mounted on SOFIA’s telescope for imaging and spectroscopic observations during the flight.

Later in Cycle 4, the SOFIA observatory is scheduled to deploy to the Southern Hemisphere for seven weeks in June and July 2016, with 24 science flights planned from a base at Christchurch, New Zealand. There, scientists will have the opportunity to observe areas of interest such as the Galactic Center and other parts of the Milky Way that are not visible or difficult to observe from the Northern Hemisphere.

The far-infrared High-resolution Airborne Wideband Camera-plus (HAWC+) will be added to SOFIA’s suite of seven cameras, spectrometers, and high-speed photometers during the latter part of Cycle 4. HAWC+’s optics, state-of-the-art detector arrays, and upgradability will permit a broad range of important astrophysical investigations, including the unique and powerful capability of mapping magnetic fields in molecular clouds.

SOFIA is a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR). NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, manages the SOFIA program. The aircraft is based at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center’s facility in Palmdale, California. NASA Ames manages the SOFIA science and mission operations in cooperation with the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) headquartered in Columbia, Maryland, and the German SOFIA Institute (DSI) at the University of Stuttgart.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Nicholas A. Veronico
SOFIA Science Center, NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.
Feb. 22, 2016
Editor: Yvonne Gibbs

Small Asteroid to Pass Close to Earth March 5, 2016

A small asteroid that two years ago flew past Earth at a comfortable distance of about 1.3 million miles (2 million kilometers) will safely fly by our planet again in a few weeks, though this time it may be much closer.

During the upcoming March 5 flyby, asteroid 2013 TX68 could fly past Earth as far out as 9 million miles (14 million kilometers) or as close as 11,000 miles (17,000 kilometers). The variation in possible closest approach distances is due to the wide range of possible trajectories for this object, since it was tracked for only a short time after discovery.

Scientists at NASA’s Center for NEO Studies (CNEOS) at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, have determined there is no possibility that this object could impact Earth during the flyby next month. But they have identified an extremely remote chance that this small asteroid could impact on Sep. 28, 2017, with odds of no more than 1-in-250-million. Flybys in 2046 and 2097 have an even lower probability of impact.

“The possibilities of collision on any of the three future flyby dates are far too small to be of any real concern,” said Paul Chodas, manager of CNEOS. “I fully expect any future observations to reduce the probability even more.”

Asteroid 2013 TX68 is estimated to be about 100 feet (30 meters) in diameter. By comparison, the asteroid that broke up in the atmosphere over Chelyabinsk, Russia, three years ago was approximately 65 feet (20 meters) wide. If an asteroid the size of 2013 TX68 were to enter Earth’s atmosphere, it would likely produce an air burst with about twice the energy of the Chelyabinsk event.

The asteroid was discovered by the NASA-funded Catalina Sky Survey on Oct. 6, 2013, as it approached Earth on the nighttime side. After three days of tracking, the asteroid passed into the daytime sky and could no longer be observed. Because it was not tracked for very long, scientists cannot predict its precise orbit around the sun, but they do know that it cannot impact Earth during its flyby next month.

“This asteroid’s orbit is quite uncertain, and it will be hard to predict where to look for it,” said Chodas. “There is a chance that the asteroid will be picked up by our asteroid search telescopes when it safely flies past us next month, providing us with data to more precisely define its orbit around the sun.”
For regular updates on passing asteroids, NASA has a list of the next five close approaches to Earth; it links to the CNEOS website with a complete list of recent and upcoming close approaches, as well as all other data on the orbits of known NEOs, so scientists and members of the media and public can track information on known objects.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration
DC Agle
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California
Editor: Tony Greicius

What Is NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission?

NASA is developing a first-ever robotic mission to visit a large near-Earth asteroid, collect a multi-ton boulder from its surface, and redirect it into a stable orbit around the moon. Once it’s there, astronauts will explore it and return with samples in the 2020s. This Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) is part of NASA’s plan to advance the new technologies and spaceflight experience needed for a human mission to the Martian system in the 2030s.

NASA has identified multiple candidate asteroids and continues the search for one that could be redirected to near the moon in the 2020s. Since the announcement of the Asteroid Initiative in 2013, NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observation Program has catalogued more than 1,000 new near-Earth asteroids discovered by various search teams. Of those identified so far, four could be good candidates for ARM. Scientists anticipate many more will be discovered over the next few years, and NASA will study their velocity, orbit, size and spin before deciding on the target asteroid for the ARM mission.

The Asteroid Redirect Mission is one part of NASA’s Asteroid Initiative. The initiative also includes an Asteroid Grand Challenge, designed to accelerate NASA’s efforts to locate potentially hazardous asteroids through non-traditional collaborations and partnerships. The challenge could also help identify viable candidates for ARM.

NASA plans to launch the ARM robotic spacecraft at the end of this decade. The spacecraft will capture a boulder off of a large asteroid using a robotic arm. After an asteroid mass is collected, 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.

Asteroids are leftover materials from the solar system’s formation. Astronauts will return to Earth with far more samples than have ever been available for study, which could open new scientific discoveries about the formation of our solar system and beginning of life on Earth.

The robotic mission also will demonstrate planetary defense techniques to deflect dangerous asteroids and protect Earth if needed in the future. NASA will choose an asteroid mass for capture with a size and mass that cannot harm the Earth, because it would burn up in the atmosphere. In addition to ensuring a stable orbit, redirecting the asteroid mass to a distant retrograde orbit around the moon also will ensure it will not hit Earth.

Perhaps most importantly, NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission will greatly advance NASA’s human path to Mars, testing the capabilities needed for a crewed mission to the Red Planet in the 2030s. For more information, read “How NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission Will Help Humans Reach Mars.”

National Aeronautics and Space Administration 
Originally Posted: July 31, 2015
Page Editor: Jim Wilson
NASA Official: Brian Dunbar