SSL 1300 commercial satellite bus
Space Systems/Loral
Palo Alto, CA

NASA continues to advance the journey to Mars through progress on the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), which will test a number of new capabilities needed for future human expeditions to deep space, including to Mars. This includes advanced Solar Electric Propulsion — an efficient way to move heavy cargo using solar power, which could help pre-position cargo for future human missions to the Red Planet.

This concept image shows an astronaut preparing to take samples from the captured asteroid after it has been relocated to a stable orbit in the Earth-Moon system. (NASA)
As part of ARM, a robotic spacecraft will rendezvous with a near-Earth asteroid and redirect an asteroid mass to a stable orbit around the Moon. Astronauts will explore the asteroid mass in the 2020s, helping test modern spaceflight capabilities like new spacesuits and sample return techniques. Astronauts at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston have already begun to practice the capabilities needed for the mission.

Agency officials are studying two robotic capture concepts for the robotic spacecraft that will rendezvous with the asteroid. One option would use an inflatable mechanism to capture an entire small asteroid. Another option would use robotic arms to retrieve a boulder from a much larger asteroid. NASA centers across the country are advancing and testing technologies for both concepts. NASA expects to select a concept for the mission in early 2015.

Space Systems/Loral (SSL) was selected by NASA to study the system concepts and key technologies. One study examines using robotic technology from MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA), and one that examines adapting commercial spacecraft for the Asteroid Redirect Vehicle. SSL and MDA will work with Honeybee Robotics Spacecraft Mechanisms Corp. on the Autonomous Boulder Liberation Equipment study. The companies will collaborate to demonstrate the robotic placement and handling of excavation and capture tools to remove a boulder from the surface of an asteroid. For the Asteroid Redirect Vehicle study, SSL will examine how to adapt commercial spacecraft, and will define system concepts that leverage SSL’s commercial satellite bus, the SSL 1300.

The agency has identified three asteroids that could be good candidates for each capture option so far and anticipates finding one or two per year for each option. Efforts to identify good candidates for the mission are also helping augment NASA’s existing work to survey near-Earth objects and identify those that could threaten Earth.

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