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We're going to bring an asteroid fragment into Lunar orbit

NASA's bean-counters okay US$1.4 billion rock-munching space robot

NASA engineering testing robotic ARM components
Playing with rocks: NASA engineers test ARM's robots. Image: NASA

NASA has pressed the “Go” button for its Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).

During July, the project went through “Key Decision Point-B”, and it got the tick from management on August 15, meaning the agency is going to get busy on a “baseline mission design”.

The plan, as we reported in March 2015, is to rendezvous with a suitable near-Earth asteroid; chip off a chunk to bring back to Earth; and nudge the asteroid into Lunar orbit.

With the bureaucracy out of the way, the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory says it's going to issue a request for proposals (RFP) for the spacecraft. There will also be an approach to market for third-party payloads on the robotic flight system.

NASA's cost cap for the project has been lifted from US$1.25 billion to $1.4 billion, something the agency says is entirely due to a one-year delay in launch scheduling, with the robotic ARM now slated to fly in December 2021 (a crewed launch is also on the cards for 2026, but that part of the project is in a much earlier stage of planning).

NASA says the robotic ARM will “demonstrate advanced, high-power, high-throughput solar electric propulsion; advanced autonomous high-speed proximity operations at a low-gravity planetary body; controlled touchdown and liftoff with a multi-ton mass from a low-gravity planetary body, astronaut spacewalk activities for sample selection, extraction, containment and return; and mission operations of integrated robotic and crewed vehicle stack—all key components of future in-space operations for human missions to Mars.”

NASA's reference candidate during the planning phase is 2008 EV5, described here. The final target asteroid will be selected in 2020.

More from NASA here. ®

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