For almost a week now, NASA has been preparing for the transition between the Obama administration and that o Donald Trump, the president-elect. Unfortunately, little seems clear at this point, as the Trump campaign has yet to send representatives to speak to them, or give any indication of what the future budget environment might look like.
In lieu of clear statements, speculation has been the norm, and has been based almost entirely on statements made during the election. And with many important missions approaching, NASA has been understandably antsy. Luckily, with the appointment of a Agency Research Team (ART), it appears that the much-needed meeting may be on the way.
This news is certainly a welcome relief in a post-election atmosphere characterized for the most part by uncertainty and ambiguity. And it certainly is good news for NASA administrators, who have been getting increasingly anxious about what the new administration’s policies will mean for their future.
“The new administration has not yet named its transition team members that interface with NASA, so we don’t yet know who we’ll be talking to. We are prepared to talk with them when they arrive… We hope to be building on the consensus we’ve achieved on the phases of exploration, the progression of human exploration from the ISS all the way to the surface of Mars.”
Once the election wrapped up after Nov. 8th, it was rumored that Mark Albrecht – the former executive secretary of the National Space Council during George H.W. Bush’s presidency – would be leading the NASA transition efforts. However, these rumors were not followed by any formal announcement, and no other individuals were named to the team.
This was certainly disconcerting, since NASA and other large agencies are used to meeting with transitional teams within days of an election. This is seen as essential for ensuring that there is continuity, or that they are apprised of changes long before they take effect. Given the nature of their work, NASA planners need to know in advance what kind of budgets they will have to work with, since it will determine what missions they can do.
As Williams indicated, NASA is particularly concerned about their “Journey to Mars“, a long-term goal which requires a consistent commitment in terms of financial resources. And while transitional funding was made available for fiscal year 2017 – thanks to the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2016 – NASA is looking far beyond the coming year.
In the coming years, NASA will need a solid commitment from the Trump presidency to ensure the completion and testing of the Space Launch System (SLS) – the successor to the Space Shuttle Program. They also require a multi-billion dollar commitment to continue testing the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle, not to mention the several crewed missions they hope to conduct using both.
Another thing that is central to mounting a crewed mission to Mars in the 2030s are the ongoing studies aboard the ISS. In particular, NASA hopes to use long-duration stays aboard the station to determine the risks to astronaut health. A crewed mission to Mars will spend several months in space, during which time they will be living in zero-gravity conditions and exposed to a great deal of radiation.
In addition, NASA hopes to mount a crewed mission to an asteroid in the coming decade. The plan entails sending a robotic spacecraft to capture and tow a Near-Earth Object (NEO) into lunar orbit – known as the Asteroid Robotic Redirect Missions (ARRM). This is to be followed by a crewed Orion spacecraft being sent to explore the asteroid, which will develop key systems and expertise for the coming mission to Mars.
Unfortunately, the Transition Authorization Act contained some strongly-worded language about the robotic asteroid mission. Essentially, it was deemed as not falling within the original budget constraints of $1.25 billion (it is now estimated at $1.4 billion). NASA planners were therefore encouraged to find “a more cost effective and scientifically beneficial means to demonstrate the technologies needed for a human mission to Mars.”
As such, NASA is very interested to know if the new administration will make the necessary commitment to fund the ARRM, or if they need to scrub it at this point and go back to the drawing board. One way or another, NASA needs to know what it will be capable of doing in the coming years so that they can develop a plan for what they intend to do.
The current state of uncertainty has been largely attributed to the fact that the Trump campaign engaged in little planning before the election. While various statements were made about the important role NASA plays, nothing concrete was laid out. And Trump even went so far as to say that long-term exploration goals would depend upon the economic climate.
One can only hope that the new Agency Research Team will have an agenda prepared when they meet with NASA administrators. We can also hope that it won’t impede NASA’s more ambitious efforts for the coming years. The agency has made it clear that its plans to explore Mars are in keeping with the goal of remaining the leader in the field of space exploration and research. If they can’t get there in the time period desired, someone else just might!
On Sept. 15th, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation met to consider legislation formally introduced by a bipartisan group of senators. Among the bills presented was the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2016, a measure designed to ensure short-term stability for the agency in the coming year.
And as of Thursday, Sept. 22nd, the Senate Commerce Committee approved the bill, providing $19.5 billion in funding for NASA for fiscal year 2017. This funding was intended for the purpose of advancing the agency’s plans for deep space exploration, the Journey to Mars, and operations aboard the International Space Station.
According to Senator Ted Cruz, the bill’s lead sponsor, the Act was introduced in order to ensure that NASA’s major programs would be stable during the upcoming presidential transition. As Cruz was quoted as saying by SpaceNews:
“The last NASA reauthorization act to pass Congress was in 2010. And we have seen in the past the importance of stability and predictability in NASA and space exploration: that whenever one has a change in administration, we have seen the chaos that can be caused by the cancellation of major programs.”
This last act was known as the “NASA Authorization Act of 2010“, which authorized appropriations for NASA between the years of 2011-2013. In addition to providing a total of $58 billion in funding for those three years, it also defined long-term goals for the space agency, which included expanding human space flight beyond low-Earth orbit and developing technical systems for the “Journey to Mars”.
“In order to maximize the cost-effectiveness of the long-term exploration and utilization activities of the United States, the Administrator shall take all necessary steps, including engaging international, academic, and industry partners to ensure that activities in the Administration’s human exploration program balance how those activities might also help meet the requirements of future exploration and utilization activities leading to human habitation on the surface of Mars.”
While the passage of the bill is certainly good news for NASA’s bugeteers, it contains some provisions which could pose problems. For example, while the bill does provide for continued development of the SLS and Orion capsule, it advised that NASA find alternatives for its Asteroid Robotic Redirect Missions (ARRM), which is currently planned for the 2020s.
This mission, which NASA deemed essential for testing key systems and developing expertise for their eventual crewed mission to Mars, was cited for not falling within original budget constraints. Section 435 (“Asteroid Robotic Redirect Mission“), details these concerns, stating that an initial estimate put the cost of the mission at $1.25 billion, excluding launch and operations.
However, according to a Key Decision Point-B review conducted by NASA on July 15th, 2016, a new estimate put the cost at $1.4 billion (excluding launch and operations). As a result, the bill’s sponsors concluded that ARM is in competition with other programs, and that an independent cost assessment and some hard choices may be necessary.
In Section 435, subsection b (parts 1 and 2), its states that:
“[T]he technological and scientific goals of the Asteroid Robotic Redirect Mission may not be commensurate with the cost; and alternative missions may provide a more cost effective and scientifically beneficial means to demonstrate the technologies needed for a human mission to Mars that would otherwise be demonstrated by the Asteroid Robotic Redirect Mission.”
The bill was also subject to amendments, which included the approval of funding for the development of satellite servicing technology. Under this arrangement, NASA would have the necessary funds to create spacecraft capable of repairing and providing maintenance to orbiting satellites, thus ensuring long-term functionality.
Also, Cruz and Bill Nelson (D-Fla), the committee ranking member, also supported an amendment that would indemnify companies or third parties executing NASA contracts. In short, companies like SpaceX or Blue Origin would now be entitled to compensation (above a level they are required to insure against) in the event of damages or injuries incurred as a result of launch and reentry services being provided.
According to a Commerce Committee press release, Sen. Bill Nelson had this to say about the bill’s passage:
“I want to thank Chairman Thune and the members of the committee for their continued support of our nation’s space program. Last week marked the 55th anniversary of President Kennedy’s challenge to send a man to the Moon by the end of the decade. The NASA bill we passed today keeps us moving toward a new and even more ambitious goal – sending humans to Mars.”
With the approval of the Commerce Committee, the bill will now be sent to the Senate for approval. It is hoped that the bill will pass through the Senate quickly so it can be passed by the House before the year is over. Its supporters see this as crucial to maintaining NASA’s funding in the coming years, during which time they will be taking several crucial steps towards the proposed crewed mission to Mars.
Under the 3 year, $67 million contract award, Aerojet Rocketdyne will develop the engineering development unit for an Advanced Electric Propulsion System (AEPS) with the potential for follow on flight units.
NASA hopes that the work will result in a 10 fold increase in “spaceflight transportation fuel efficiency compared to current chemical propulsion technology and more than double thrust capability compared to current electric propulsion systems.”
The SEP effort is based in part on NASA’s exploratory work on Hall ion thrusters which trap electrons in a magnetic field and uses them to ionize and accelerate the onboard xenon gas propellant to produce thrust much more efficiently than chemical thrusters.
The solar electric propulsion (SEP) system technology will afford benefits both to America’s commercial space and scientific space exploration capabilities.
For NASA, the SEP technology can be applied for expeditions to deep space such as NASA’s planned Asteroid Robotic Redirect Mission (ARRM) to snatch a boulder from the surface of an asteroid and return it to cislunar space during the 2020s, as well as to carry out the agency’s ambitious plans to send humans on a ‘Journey to Mars’ during the 2030s.
“High power SEP is a perfect example of NASA developing cross cutting technologies to enable both human and robotic deep space missions. Basically it enables high efficiency and better gas mileage,” said Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) in Washington, at a media briefing.
“The advantage here is the higher power and the higher thrust.”
“Our plan right now is to flight test the higher power solar electric propulsion that Aerojet Rocketdyne will develop for us on the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM), which is going to go out to an asteroid with a robotic system, grab a boulder off of an asteroid, and bring it back to a lunar orbit.”
ARRM would launch around 2020 or 2021. Astronauts would blast off several years later in NASA’s Orion crew capsule in 2025 after the robotic probes travels back to lunar orbit.
For industry, electric propulsion is used increasingly to maneuver thrusters in Earth orbiting commercial satellites for station keeping in place of fuel.
“Through this contract, NASA will be developing advanced electric propulsion elements for initial spaceflight applications, which will pave the way for an advanced solar electric propulsion demonstration mission by the end of the decade,” says Jurczyk.
“Development of this technology will advance our future in-space transportation capability for a variety of NASA deep space human and robotic exploration missions, as well as private commercial space missions.”
“This is also a critical capability for enabling human missions to Mars, with respect to delivering cargo to the surface to Mars that will allow people to live and work there on the surface. Also for combined chemical and SEP systems on a spacecraft to propel humans to Mars,” elaborated Jurczyk at the briefing.
“Another application is round trip robotic science missions to Mars to bring back samples – such as a Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission.”
The starting point is NASA’s development and technology readiness testing of a prototype 13-kilowatt Hall thruster and power processing unit at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.
Under the contract award Aerojet Rocketdyne aims to carry out the industrial development of “high-power solar electric propulsion into a flight-qualified system.”
They will develop, build, test and deliver “an integrated electric propulsion system consisting of a thruster, power processing unit (PPU), low-pressure xenon flow controller, and electrical harness,” as an engineering development unit.
This engineering development unit serves as the basis for producing commercial flight units.
If successful, NASA has an option to purchase up to four integrated flight units for actual space missions. Engineers from NASA Glenn and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) will provide technical support.
“We could string together four of these engine units to get approximately 50 kilowatts of electrical propulsion capability and with that we can do significant orbital transfer operations. That then becomes the next step in deep space exploration operations that we are trying to do,” said Bryan Smith, director of the Space Flight Systems Directorate at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, at the media briefing.
“We hope to buy four of these units for the ARRM mission.”
What were some of NASA’s research and development (R&D) activities and further plans for Aerojet Rocketdyne?
“NASA is driving out the technology itself for feasibility. So we produced a developmental device to operate at these levels,” Smith told Universe Today during the briefing.
“Other key characteristics we were looking for is the ability to do magnetic shielding. The purpose was to allow for a long life thruster operation. We investigated attributes like thermal problems and balancing the erosion mechanisms in developmental units. So we were looking for things to get longer life and feasibility in developmental units.”
“Once we were comfortable with the feasibility in developmental units, we are now transferring the information, technology and knowhow into what is a production article, in this contract.”
Solar electric ion propulsion is already being used in NASA’s hugely successful Dawn asteroid orbiter mission.
Dawn was launched in 2007. It orbited and surveyed Vesta in 2011 and 2012 and then traveled outward to Ceres.
Dawn arrived at dwarf planet Ceres in March 2015 and is currently conducting breakthrough science at its lowest planned science mapping orbit.
A key part of the Journey to Mars, NASA will be sending cargo missions to the Red Planet to pave the way for human expeditions with the Orion crew module and Space Launch System.
Aerojet Rocketdyne states that “Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) systems have demonstrated the ability to reduce the mission cost for NASA Human Exploration cargo missions by more than 50 percent through the use of existing flight-proven SEP systems.”
“Using a SEP tug for cargo delivery, combined with NASA’s Space Launch System and the Orion crew module, provides an affordable path for deep space exploration,” said Aerojet Rocketdyne Vice President, Space and Launch Systems, Julie Van Kleeck.
Another near term application of high power solar electric propulsion could be for NASA’s proposed Mars 2022 telecom orbiter, said Smith at the media briefing.
Other NASA technology work in progress includes development of more efficient, advanced solar array systems to generate the additional power required for the larger electric thrusters.
Orbital ATK was part of the development effort and already used some of its technology development in the ultraflex solar arrays on the recent Cygnus cargo ships delivering supplies to the ISS.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.
The Obama Administration has announced its new Federal budget and is proposing to cut NASA’s Fiscal Year 2017 Budget to $19 billion by carving away significant funding for deep space exploration, whereas the overall US Federal budget actually increases to over $4.1 trillion.
This 2017 budget request amounts to almost $300 million less than the recently enacted NASA budget for 2016 and specifically stipulates deep funding cuts for deep space exploration programs involving both humans and robots, during President Obama’s final year in office.
The overall Exploration Systems Development account for human deep space missions would be slashed about 18 percent from the 2016 funding level; from $4.0 Billion to only $3.3 Billion, or nearly $700 million.
SLS alone is reduced the most by $700 million from $2.0 billion to $1,31 billion, or a whopping 35 percent loss. Orion is reduced from $1.27 billion to $1.12 billion for a loss of some $150 million.
Make no mistake. These programs are already starved for funding and the Obama administration tried to force similar cuts to these programs in 2016, until Congress intervened.
Likewise, the Obama administration is proposing a draconian cut to the proposed robotic mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa that would surely delay the launch by at least another half a decade or more – to the late 2020s.
The Europa mission budget proposal is cut to only $49 million and the launch is postponed until the late 2020s. The mission received $175 million in funding in 2016 – amounting to a 72 percent reduction.
Furthermore there is no funding for a proposed lander and the launch vehicle changes from SLS to a far less powerful EELV – causing a year’s long increased travel time.
In order to maintain an SLS launch in approximately 2022, NASA would require a budget of about $150 million in 2017, said David Radzanowski, NASA’s chief financial officer, during a Feb. 9 teleconference with reporters.
Why is Europa worth exploring? Because Europa likely possesses a subsurface ocean of water and is a prime target in the search for life!
Overall, NASA’s hugely successful Planetary Sciences division suffers a huge and nearly 10 percent cut of $141 million to $1.51 billion – despite undeniably groundbreaking scientific successes this past year at Pluto, Ceres, Mars and more!
Altogether NASA would receive $19.025 billion in FY 2017. This totals $260 million less than the $19.285 billion appropriated in FY 2016, and thus corresponds to a reduction of 1.5 percent.
By contrast, the overall US Federal Budget will increase nearly 5 percent to approximately $4.1 trillion. Simple math demonstrates that NASA is clearly not a high priority for the administration. NASA’s share of the Federal budget comes in at less than half a cent on the dollar.
NASA’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget proposal was announced by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden during a televised ‘State of NASA’ address at the agency’s Langley Research Center in Virginia on Feb. 9.
Bolden did not dwell at all on the significant funding reductions for exploration.
“We are hitting our benchmarks with new exploration systems like the Space Launch System rocket and the Orion Crew Vehicle. A new consensus is emerging in the scientific and policy communities around our vision, timetable and plan for sending American astronauts to Mars in the 2030s.”
And he outlined some milestones ahead.
“We’ll continue to make great progress on the Space Launch System – SLS–rocket and we’re preparing for a second series of engine tests,” said Bolden.
“At the Kennedy Space Center, our teams will outfit Orion’s crew module with the spacecraft’s heat-shielding thermal protection systems, avionics and subsystems like electrical power storage, cabin pressure control and flight software –to name just a few.”
NASA plans to launch the first combined SLS/Orion on the uncrewed Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) in November 2018.
The launch date for the first crewed flight on EM-2 was targeted for 2021. But EM-2 is likely to slip to the right to 2023, due to insufficient funding.
Lack of funding will also force NASA to delay development of the far more capable and powerful Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) to propel Orion on deep space missions. It will now not be available for the SLS/EM-2 launch as hoped.
The proposed huge budget cuts to SLS, Orion and Europa are certain to arose the ire of multiple members of Congress and space interest groups, who just successfully fought to increase NASA’s FY 2016 budget for these same programs in the recently passed 2016 omnibus spending bill.
“This administration cannot continue to tout plans to send astronauts to Mars while strangling the programs that will take us there,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), Chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, in a statement in response to the president’s budget proposal.
“President Obama’s FY17 budget proposal shrinks our deep space exploration programs by more than $800 million. And the administration once more proposes cuts of more than $100 million to the Planetary Science accounts, which have previously funded missions like this past year’s Pluto flyby.”
“This imbalanced proposal continues to tie our astronauts’ feet to the ground and makes a Mars mission all but impossible. This is not the proposal of an administration that is serious about maintaining America’s leadership in space.”
“The Coalition for Deep Space Exploration … had hoped the request would reflect the priorities laid out for NASA in the FY16 Omnibus, for which there was broad support,” said Mary Lynne Dittmar, executive director of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, in a statement.
“Unfortunately this was not the case. The Coalition is disappointed with the proposed reduction in funding below the FY16 Omnibus for NASA’s exploration programs. We are deeply concerned about the Administration’s proposed cut to NASA’s human exploration development programs.”
“This proposed budget falls well short of the investment needed to support NASA’s exploration missions, and would have detrimental impacts on cornerstone, game-changing programs such as the super-heavy lift rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), and the Orion spacecraft – the first spacecraft designed to reach multiple destinations in the human exploration of deep space.”
On Dec. 18, 2015, the US Congress passed and the president signed the 2016 omnibus spending bill which funds the US government through the remainder of the 2016 Fiscal Year.
As part of the omnibus bill, NASA’s approved budget amounted to nearly $19.3 Billion. That was an outstanding result and a remarkable turnaround to some long awaited good news from the decidedly negative outlook earlier in 2015.
The 2016 budget represented an increase of some $750 million above the Obama Administration’s proposed NASA budget allocation of $18.5 Billion for Fiscal Year 2016, and an increase of more than $1.2 Billion over the enacted budget for FY 2015.
NASA GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER, MD – Rigorous testing has begun on the advanced robotic arm and boulder extraction mechanisms that are key components of the unmanned probe at the heart of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM) now under development to pluck a multi-ton boulder off a near-Earth asteroid so that astronauts visiting later in an Orion crew capsule can harvest a large quantity of samples for high powered scientific analysis back on Earth. Universe Today inspected the robotic arm hardware utilizing “leveraged robotic technology” during an up close visit and exclusive interview with the engineering development team at NASA Goddard.
“The teams are making great progress on the capture mechanism that has been delivered to the robotics team at Goddard from Langley,” NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot told Universe Today.
“NASA is developing these common technologies for a suite of missions like satellite servicing and refueling in low Earth orbit as well as autonomously capturing an asteroid about 100 million miles away,” said Ben Reed, NASA Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office (SSCO) Deputy Project Manager, during an exclusive interview and hardware tour with Universe Today at NASA Goddard in Greenbelt, Maryland, regarding concepts and goals for the overall Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) initiative.
The unmanned Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM) to grab a boulder is the essential first step towards carrying out the follow on sample retrieval with the manned Orion Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) by the mid-2020s.
ARRM will use a pair of highly capable robotic arms to autonomously grapple a multi-ton (> 20 ton) boulder off the surface of a large near-Earth asteroid and transport it to a stable, astronaut accessible orbit around the Moon in cislunar space.
“Things are moving well. The teams have made really tremendous progress on the robotic arm and capture mechanism,” Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, told Universe Today.
Then an Orion crew capsule can fly to it and the astronauts will collect a large quantity of rock samples and gather additional scientific measurements.
“We are working on a system to rendezvous, capture and service different [target] clients using the same technologies. That is what we are working on in a nut shell,” Reed said.
“Right now the plan is to launch ARRM by about December 2020,” Reed told me. But a huge amount of preparatory work across the US is required to turn NASA’s plan into reality.
Key mission enabling technologies are being tested right now with a new full scale engineering model of the ‘Robotic Servicing Arm’ and a full scale mockup of the boulder snatching ARRM Capture Module at NASA Goddard, in a new facility known as “The Cauldron.”
The ARRM capture module is comprised of two shorter robotic arms (separated by 180 degrees) and three lengthy contact and restraint system capture legs (separated by 120 degrees) attached to a cradle with associated avionics, computers and electronics and the rest of the spacecraft and solar electric power arrays.
“The robotic arm we have here now is an engineering development unit. The 2.2 meter-long arms can be used for assembling large telescopes, repairing a failed satellite, removing orbital debris and capturing an asteroid,” said Reed.
“There are two little arms and three big capture legs.”
“So, we are leveraging one technology development program into multiple NASA objectives.”
“We are working on common technologies that can service a legacy orbiting satellite, not designed to be serviced, and use those same technologies with some tweaking that we can go out with 100 million miles and capture an asteroid and bring it back to the vicinity of the Moon.”
“Currently the [capture module] system can handle a boulder that’s up to about 3 x 4 x 5 meters in diameter.”
The Cauldron is a brand new Goddard facility for testing technologies and operations for multiple exploration and science missions, including satellite servicing and ARRM that just opened in June 2015 for the centers Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office.
Overall project lead for ARRM is the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) with numerous contributions from other NASA centers and industrial partners.
“This is an immersive development lab where we bring systems together and can do lifetime testing to simulate what’s in space. This is our robotic equivalent to the astronauts NBL, or neutral buoyancy lab,” Reed elaborated.
“So with this same robotic arm that can cut wires and thermal blankets and refuel an Earth sensing satellite, we can now have that same arm go out on a different mission and be able to travel out and pick up a multi-ton boulder and bring it back for astronauts to harvest samples from.”
“So that’s quite a technical feat!”
The Robotic Servicing Arm is a multi-jointed powerhouse designed to function like a “human arm” as much as possible. It builds on extensive prior research and development investment efforts conducted for NASA’s current Red Planetrovers and a flight-qualified robotic arm developed for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
“The arm is capable of seven-degrees-of-freedom to mimic the full functionally of a human arm. It has heritage from the arm on Mars right now on Curiosity as well as ground based programs from DARPA,” Reed told me.
“It has three degrees of freedom at our shoulder, two at our elbow and two more at the wrist. So I can hold the hand still and move the elbow.”
The arm will also be equipped with a variety of interchangeable “hands” that are basically tools to carry out different tasks with the asteroid such as grappling, drilling, sample gathering, imaging and spectrometric analysis, etc.
The ARRM spacecraft will carefully study, characterize and photograph the asteroid in great detail for about a month before attempting the boulder capture.
Why does the arm need all this human-like capability?
“When we arrive at an asteroid that’s 100 million miles away, we are not going to know the fine local geometry until we arrive,” Reed explained to Universe Today.
“Therefore we need a flexible enough arm that can accommodate local geometries at the multi-foot scale. And then a gripper tool that can handle those geometry facets at a much smaller scale.”
“Therefore we chose seven-degrees-of-freedom to mimic humans very much by design. We also need seven-degrees-of-freedom to conduct collision avoidance maneuvers. You can’t do that with a six-degree-of-freedom arm. It has to be seven to be a general purpose arm.”
How will the ARRM capture module work to snatch the boulder off the asteroid?
“So the idea is you come to the mother asteroid and touch down and make contact on the surface. Then you hold that position and the two arms reach out and grab the boulder.”
“Once its grabbed the boulder, then the legs straighten and pull the boulder off the surface.”
“Then the arms nestle the asteroid onto a cradle. And the legs then change from a contact system to become a restraint system. So the legs wrap around the boulder to restrain it for the 100 million mile journey back home.
“After that the little arms can let go – because the legs have wrapped around and are holding the asteroid.”
“So now the arm can also let go of the gripper system and pick up a different tool to do other things. For example they can collect a sample with another tool. And maybe assist an astronaut after the crew arrives.”
“During the 100 million mile journey back to lunar orbit they can be also be preparing the surface and cutting into it for later sample collection by the astronauts.”
Be sure to watch this video animation:
Since the actual asteroid encounter will occur very far away, the boulder grappling will have to be done fully autonomously since there will be no possibility for real time communications.
“The return time for communications is like about 30 minutes. So ‘human in the loop’ control is out of the question.
“Once we get into hover position over the landing site we hit the GO button. Then it will be very much like at Mars and the seven minutes of terror. It will take awhile to find out if it worked.”
Therefore the team at Goddard has already spent years of effort and practice sessions just to get ready for working with the early engineering version of the arm to maximize the probability of a successful capture.
“In this facility we put systems together to try and practice and rehearse and simulate as much of the mission as is realistically possible.”
“It took a lot of effort to get to this point, in the neighborhood of four years to get the simulation to behave correctly in real time with contact dynamics and the robotic systems. So the arm has to touch the boulder with force torque sensors and feed that into a computer to measure that and move the actuators to respond accordingly.”
“So the capture of the boulder is autonomous. The rest is teleoperated from the ground, but not the capture itself.”
How realistic are the rehearsals?
“We are practicing here by reaching out with the arm to grasp the client target using autonomous capture [procedures]. In space the client [target] is floating and maybe tumbling. So when we reach out with the arm to practice autonomous capture we make the client tumble and move – with the inertial properties of the target we are practicing on.”
“Now for known objects like satellites we know the mass precisely. And we can program all that inertial property data in very accurately to give us much more realistic simulations.”
“We learned from all our astronaut servicing experiences in orbit is that the more we know for the simulations, the easier and better the results are for the astronauts during an actual mission because you simulated all the properties.”
“But with this robotic mission to an asteroid there is no backup like astronauts. So we want to practice here at Goddard and simulate the space environment.”
ARRM will launch by the end of 2020 on either an SLS, Delta IV Heavy or a Falcon Heavy. NASA has not yet chosen the launch vehicle.
Several candidate asteroids have already been discovered and NASA has an extensive ongoing program to find more.
Again, this robotic technology was selected for development for ARRM because it has a lot in common with other objectives like fixing communications satellites, refueling satellites and building large telescopes in the future.
NASA is also developing other critical enabling technologies for the entire ARM project like solar electric propulsion that will be the subject of another article.
Therefore NASA is leveraging one technology development program into multiple spaceflight objectives that will greatly assist its plans to send ‘Humans to Mars’ in the 2030s with the Orion crew module launched by the monster Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.
The maiden uncrewed launch of the Orion/SLS stack is slated for November 2018.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.