Construction Tips from a Type 2 Engineer: Collaboration with Isaac Arthur

Type 2 Civ Tips!

By popular request, Isaac Arthur and I have teamed up again to bring you a vision of the future of human space exploration. This time, we bring you practical construction tips from a pair of Type 2 Civilization engineers.

To make this collaboration even better, we’ve teamed up with two artists, Kevin Gill and Sergio Botero. They’re going to help create some special art, just for this episode, to help show what some of these megaprojects might look like.

I’d also like to congratulate Gannon Huiting for suggesting the topic for this collaboration. We both asked our Patreon communities to brainstorm ideas, and his core idea sparked the idea for the episode. You get one of my precious metal meteorites, which I guarantee will give you a mostly worthless superpower.

We’ll tell you the story of what it took to go from our first tentative steps into space to the vast Solar System spanning civilization we have today. How did we extract energy and resources from the Moon, planets and even gas giants of the Solar System? How did we shift around and dismantle the worlds to provide the raw resources of our civilization?

Lunar Rover Concept. Credit: Sergio Botero

Humanity’s ability to colonize the Solar System was unleashed when we harvested deposits of helium 3 from the Moon. This isotope of helium is rare on Earth, but the constant solar wind from the Sun has deposited a layer across the Moon, though its regolith.

Helium 3 was the best, first energy source we got our hands on, and it changed everything. Although other kinds of fusion reactors can produce more energy with more efficiency, the advantage of helium 3 is that the fusion reaction releases no neutrons. This means you can have a fusion reactor on your starship or on your base with much less shielding.

Multi-dome base being constructed. Credit: ESA/Foster + Partners

We still use helium-3 reactors when living creatures need to be close the reactor, or the ship can’t afford to carry around heavy shielding.

The Helium 3 is found within the first 100 cm of the lunar regolith. Harvesting it started slowly, but in time, our mining machines grew larger, and we stripped this layer completely off the Moon. There are other repositories across the Solar System, in the regolith of Mercury, other moons and asteroids across the Solar System, and in the atmospheres of the giant planets. We later switched to getting our Helium 3 from Uranus and Neptune, but the Moon got everything started.

A huge lunar miner, with astronaut for scale. Credit: Sergio Botero

One of our big problems with building in space was getting raw materials. Just about every place that has the supplies we needed was at the bottom very deep gravity wells which made accessing those materials a lot harder. Asteroid and moons offered us a large supply of material that was not locked inside such deep gravity wells.

These asteroids also gave us a big initial head start on developing space-based infrastructure as they contained a great deal of precious metals that we could bring home to help fund our endeavors.

For all that, the entire Asteroid Belt contains much less material than Earth’s own Moon. The ease of mining and transport on these bodies made them a critical source of raw materials for building up the early Solar Infrastructure and many of them became homes to rotating habitats buried deep inside the asteroid, where millions of people live comfortably shielded from the hazards of space and support themselves mining the asteroid around them.

Artist’s impression of the asteroid belt. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

These asteroids and moons often contained water in the form of ice, which is vital to creating life-bearing habitats in space, as well as fuel and propellant for many early-era spaceships.

However, even if the entire Asteroid Belt was ice, instead of it being a fairly smaller percent of the mass, that would still only be the approximate mass of Earth’s Oceans. There was a plentiful supply for early efforts but not enough for major terraforming efforts on places like Mars or creating many artificial habitats.

Water is incredibly scarce in the inner Solar System, but becomes more plentiful as we make our way further out, past the Solar System’s Frost Line. Deeper out past the planets we find enough water to make whole planets out of, as hydrogen and oxygen are the first and third most abundant elements in the Universe. Also, for the most part these come in convenient iceberg-sized packages, low enough in mass to have a small gravity well and to be movable.

Mastering the Solar System required moving very large objects in space. For the less massive objects, we could put a big thruster on it, but for the largest projects, such as moving planets with atmospheres (which we’ll get to later in this article), another technique was required.

Concept for a possible gravity tractor. Credit: JPL

To move large objects around, without touching them, you need a Gravity Tractor.

Want to move an asteroid? Use the gravity of a less massive object, like a spaceship. Hold the spaceship close to the asteroid, and their gravity will put them together. Fire your rocket’s thrusters to keep the distance, and you slowly pull the asteroid in any direction you like. It takes a long time, and does require fuel, but you can use this technique to move anything anywhere in the Solar System.

Put a massive satellite into orbit around an asteroid. When the satellite is on one side of the asteroid it fires its thrusters towards the satellite. And then on the other side of its orbit, it fires its thrusters away from the satellite. The satellite will have been pushed twice in the same direction. To an outside observer that satellite has moved, though on the asteroid it will seem to have been nudged closer than put back.

Don’t forget that the satellite pulls on the asteroid with just as much force as the asteroid exerts on the satellite. Earth pulls on the Sun just as hard as it pulls on us, but it’s more massive so it doesn’t move as much. But it does move, and so by pushing on the satellite towards the primary then pushing away on the opposite side, we move the primary body.

We can also take advantage of momentum transfers from gravity to alter the course of an object by making a close flyby. You can use this gravitational slingshot to use the gravity of a planet to change the move large objects into a new trajectory.

Over time, we put gravitational tugs into orbit around every chunk of rock and ice that we wanted to move, shifting their locations to the best places in the Solar System.

Artist view of an asteroid passing Earth. Credit: ESA/P.Carril

Some places gave us raw materials. Other places would serve as our homes.

Earth is the third closest planet to the Sun and it will always be the environment we’re trying to replicate. Earth is, well, it was… home.

For all the millions of other worlds across the Solar System, we made them capable of hosting life  with a little work. Often we could make them habitable just by increasing the amount of energy they received from the Sun.

Creating artificial gravity by spinning a habitat or breathable air by doming it over did us no good if there wasn’t enough light to melt ice into water or let plants grow.

The farther you get from the Sun, the less light you get, but we bounce light that would have been lost, concentrating it to let life flourish. The Sun gives off over a billion times the light that actually reaches Earth, so there’s no shortage in quantity, just concentration.

This was the first sunset observed in color by Curiosity on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Texas A&M Univ.

To double the light reaching a planet like Mars, you would need a mirror surface area of twice the size of Mars. But not twice the mass of Mars. For every square meter of land on Earth, there’s about 10 billion kilograms of mass under our feet. A mirror on Earth wouldn’t weigh much more than a kilogram a square meter, but in space we can go far thinner. Any one of millions of small asteroids in the solar system contains enough material to make a planetary surface’s worth of mirrors.

Lenses or parabolic reflectors let us move light in from far more densely concentrated locations closer to the Sun. Reflecting light also allows us to remove harmful or less useful invisible wavelengths like ultraviolet or x-rays.

This allowed us to make almost any place warm and bright enough. We took distant moons and asteroids far from the Sun, and gave them a collar of thin mirrors bouncing light into a parabolic dish. By bouncing this light into rotating habitats safely buried inside the asteroid, we created warm, lush garden worlds in environments so cold that air itself would condense into a liquid.

Artist’s concept of a Venus cloud city — a possible future outcome of the High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (HAVOC) plan. Credit: Advanced Concepts Lab/NASA Langley Research Center

For most of the Solar System we wanted to warm planets up. But for Venus and Mercury, we needed to cool them down. We did this by placing shades between them and the Sun to reflect away some of the light hitting them.

The easiest way to do this was to position an opaque material between the planet and the Sun, at the L1 Lagrange point. At this point the gravitational pull of the planet counteracts the pull of the Sun allowing a large thin solar shade to remain in position with minimal energy. This way the planet is cooled.

A solar shade above Venus. Credit: Kevin Gill

But we did better than merely cool, we shaped the light to our needs. With a collection of many small shades, we avoided putting a visible dark spot on the Sun. Sunlight comes in many frequencies, from radio to x-rays; some were more valuable to us than others. Plants mostly use red and blue light, while green light doesn’t help with photosynthesis. So blocked a decent amount of green light, some blue, and no red, and cooled the planet without harming plant life and without really altering how the light looked to our eyes.

We engineered the perfect material for our shades which was mostly transparent to the wavelengths of light we wanted and mostly reflective or absorptive to the ones we didn’t.

Ultraviolet is a good example. We wanted some to get to our planet, as it does help as a sterilizing agent to biological processes and it helps make ozone, but we wanted to cut most of that out. Even better, about half of the light coming from the Sun is in infrared, which we can’t see and which plants don’t use.

We blocked most of that and seriously lowered temperatures on Venus and Mercury.

We set up shades to block the light from reaching our planets. And we did the same with dangerous radiation streaming from the Sun. We set up a concentrated magnetic shield at the Mars-Sun L1 Lagrange point, which catches and redirects high energy particles. This protects a world from the Sun, but it doesn’t prevent harmful cosmic rays, which can come from any part of the sky.

Our own planet Earth has a robust magnetosphere, and it’s the main reason we have air to breath and don’t absorb dangerous radiation from the Sun and space.

Places like Mars don’t. For this purpose, we created artificial magnetospheres. We considered trying to get Mars’ core spinning fast and hot so that rapid spinning molten ferromagnetic materials would generate a protective magnetosphere.

But that was too much effort. We didn’t actually care what generated the magnetic field, we just wanted the magnetic field. In the end we deployed a constellation of electromagnetic satellites around every world exposed to space. These satellites could do double duty, harvesting solar radiation and generating an artificial magnetosphere.

Mars used to have a natural magnetic field, but restarting it wasn’t worth it. Credit: NASA/JPL/GSFC

Cosmic rays and radioactive particles from the Sun were captured and redirected safely away from the world, allowing us to roam freely on the surface.

Once we had made acquired the resources of every world in the Solar System, we began our next great engineering effort. To move and dismantle the worlds themselves. To create the optimal configuration that gave us the most living space and the most usable energy. We began the construction of our Dyson swarm.

Moving planets is almost impossible. But not completely impossible. How do you get all that energy to move a world without melting it? The orbital energy of Earth around the Sun is approximately 30 million, trillion, trillion joules. That’s equal to all the energy the Sun puts out over a few months.

Of course, the Sun is slowly warming up, and while estimates vary, it’s generally accepted that in about a billion years it will have warmed up enough that Earth would be uninhabitable. Moving the Earth was inevitable.

To move the Earth outward to counteract the increased solar luminosity, we needed to add orbital energy. A lot of energy.

Earlier, we discussed using gravity tractors and gravitational slingshots to slowly and steadily move objects around the Solar System. This technique works at the largest scales too.

A gravity tractor could slowly and steadily move an entire planet if you had enough time and fuel. Because we already had mastery of all the asteroids in the Solar System, we put them into orbits that swept past worlds.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Each gravitational slingshot gave or stole orbital momentum from the world, pushing it closer or farther from the Sun.

We also used orbital mirrors to bounce sunlight from the Sun. With enough of them, deflecting their light in the same general directional while maintaining an orbit around the planet, we could move worlds without touching them or heating them up from the light beams.

With enough satellites to keep the net gravitational force on the planet homogenous, we didn’t have to worry about tidal heating, allowing us to move a planet far faster.

In the future, we’ll use a king-size version of this to move the entire Solar System, using the star as the power source, called a Shkadov Thruster. We will push the Sun and every star we control into a constellation that matches our needs. But that’s a problem our Type III civilization engineers will have to worry about.

Like a cosmic lava lamp, a large section of Pluto’s icy surface in Sputnik Planum is being constantly renewed by a process called convection that replaces older surface ices with fresher material. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

We always needed ice. For water, for fuel and for air. And the outer Solar System had all the ice we could ever need. We brought comets and other icy bodies in from the outer Solar System to bring water to the planets we’re terraforming – Mars, Venus, and the large moons of the Solar System.

Pushing ice is a tricky process, but the comet itself is the source of fuel, either liquid hydrogen and oxygen as the propellants or using the hydrogen for a fusion torch drive. However we have an alternative trick we can use.

We just talked about using energy beams, focused sunlight, lasers, or microwave beams to push objects outward from the sun. You can also move inward by reflecting the beam off at an angle, removing orbital momentum. This lowers their orbit into the Solar System.

Credit: NASA/Denise Watt

By setting up energy collectors on comets, we could beam power out them, and use that energy to melt atoms into gas and accelerate them away with a magnetic field, just like an ion drive. This let us take high-strength lasers and microwave beams powered from the inner Solar System and use it to tractor comets inward. The propellant melted off the comets could carry away far more momentum than the energy beam added, though at the cost of losing some of your mass in the process.

One by one we identified the icy bodies in the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud, installed an ice engine, and pulled them inward, to the places we needed that water the most.

The day to day energy for our civilization comes from the Sun. Solar collectors power the machines, computers and systems that make day-to-day life spanning the Solar System possible.

Just as the ancient Earth civilizations used hydrocarbons as a store of fuel, we depend on hydrogen. We use it for our rocket fuel, to manufacture drinking water, and most importantly, for our fusion reactors. We always need more hydrogen.

Illustration Credit:© David A. Hardy/, Project Daedalus

Fortunately, the Solar System has provided us with vast repositories of hydrogen: the giant planets, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune all made up of at least 80% hydrogen. But harvesting the planets for their hydrogen isn’t without its challenges.

For starters, the gravity on the surface of Jupiter is nearly 25 m/s2, which is nearly three times the surface gravity of Earth. On top of that, Jupiter’s magnetosphere produces intense radiation fields through its entire system. You can’t spend much time near Jupiter without receiving a lethal radiation dose.

Gas Giant Harvesting Concept. Credit: Sergio Botero

We deploy huge robotic scoopers to swoop down into Jupiter’s gravity well, skim across the upper cloud tops, funneling in as much hydrogen as they can. On board compressors liquefy the hydrogen, or refine it into the more energy dense metallic hydrogen. The fuel is then distributed across the Solar System through the interplanetary transport network.

For Uranus and Neptune, where the gravity well is less extreme, we have permanent mining stations which float in the cloud tops, harvesting raw materials for return back to space. These factories are a huge improvement over the more expensive scoop ships. Smaller cargo ships ferry the deuterium, helium-3 and hydrogen up to orbit, for an energy hungry Solar System.

Gas Giant Harvesting Concept. Credit: Gas Giant Harvesting Concept. Credit: Sergio Botero

In order to construct our Dyson Swarm, we will eventually need to dismantle almost all the planets and moons in the Solar System to provide the raw materials to house countless people.

This process has begun, and we we have a number of options. For some worlds, we plan to just keep mining and refining them with robotic factories until they are gone, but this can be quite time consuming and often we would rather do our refining and manufacturing elsewhere.

Instead, we have set up very large mass drivers running around the object to launch material directly towards its desired destination. To avoid building up angular momentum inside the shrinking mass of the planetoid, we run these giant cannons in both directions. This prevents it spinning so fast that it tears itself apart. There’s very little gravity holding these objects together after all.

For the smaller objects that’s actually just fine. When we want to disassemble a smaller asteroid or moon into rock and dirt for the inside of a cylinder habitat, we construct a cylindrical shell around the asteroid, and spray material from the asteroid onto the cylinder, giving it some spin and artificial gravity to hold the material up, or rather down to its surface. We spin the asteroid faster and faster until it flies apart, transferring its material and its angular momentum to the cylinder.

Credit: NASA.

With larger asteroids we send a series of cylinders past them in a chain, painting their interiors with the material we will turn into dirt later on, until we run out of asteroid.

For full blown minor planets and moons, which are much more massive but still fairly low in gravity and lacking an atmosphere, we pump matter up tubes to high above the planetoid to fill freighters, get compacted into cannon balls to be launched elsewhere, or simply pumped into rotating habitats being built nearby.

Mercury is already half consumed. In a few more generations, it will be a distant memory.

Perhaps our greatest accomplishment is the work underway at Jupiter and Saturn. We are now in the process of dismantling these worlds to harvest their resources.

Jupiter and Io. Image Credit: NASA/JPL
Jupiter and Io. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

The largest machines humanity has ever built, fusion candles, have been deployed into the atmospheres of Jupiter and Saturn. These enormous machines scoop up raw hydrogen from Jupiter to run their fusion reactors. One side of the fusion candle fires downward, keeping the machine aloft. The other end blasts out into space, spewing material that can be harvested from orbit.

Not only that, but these candles provide thrust, pushing Jupiter and Saturn slowly but steadily into safer, more useful orbits for our civilization. As we use up the hydrogen, their mass will decrease. Uranus and Neptune will follow slowly, from farther out in the Solar System.

Eventually, eons into the future, we will have dismantled them down to their cores. There is more than a dozen times the mass of the Earth in rock and metal down at the core of Jupiter. More raw materials than any other place in the Solar System.

Credit: Kevin Gill

The long awaited construction of our fully operational Dyson swarm will finally begin. We’ll miss the presence of Jupiter and Saturn in the Solar System, and remember them fondly, but humanity needs room to stretch its legs.

Of course, as huge as the gas giants are compared to Earth, the Sun is far bigger, and contains not just hydrogen and helium but thousands of planets worth of heavier elements, which are spread around the sun, not just concentrated deep down.

Trying to scoop matter off a star is much harder than out of gas giant, though conveniently, we can take advantage of all that energy the Sun is giving off to power our extraction.

The Sun loses mass via the solar wind, mass ejections and simply by emitting energy (Credit: NASA)

The material on the Sun is also ionized, so it reacts strongly to magnetic forces, and the Sun generates a massively powerful magnetic field too. In fact, our Sun ejects about a billion kilograms of matter a second as solar wind. We have a few ways to increase this flow and harvest it.

The first is called Thermal Driven Outflow. We hover mirrors over the surface, reflecting and concentrating light down on spots on the Sun’s surface to heat it up and increase the mass being ejected. This kicks up an eruption much like a solar flare, feeding more solar wind.


We then place a large ring of satellites around the Sun’s equator, connected to each other by a stream of ionized particles generating a huge current, themselves running that stream off solar power. This ring creates a powerful magnetic field pushing outward toward the Sun’s poles, and sending the super-heated matter in that direction.

Hovering over the poles further out, we have a giant ring sucking up sunlight and generating a huge toroidal magnetic field. All the matter we stir up on the sun and off the poles is sucked through that and slowed down for collection. It’s a lot like the VASIMR Drive, using a magnetic nozzle, so that nothing has to touch the ultra hot plasma. Giant Plasma Thrusters essentially acting as the pump to gather the matter, it stays in place using the momentum it’s stealing from the particles it is slowing down, again it’s a giant plasma thruster.

We will eventually build far more of these rings around the Sun, spaced up and down from the equator, and intermittently shut off the power beam holding them aloft. As all the satellites in that ring drop, building up speed, we switch the power for the beam back on and their plummet stops and they push back up to their original position. We do this with all the rings, in sequence, pushing much larger waves of matter toward the poles than the Thermal Driven Outflow method provides, and we call this option the Huff-n-Puff Method.

A montage of planets and other objects in the solar system. Credit: NASA/JPL

And there you have it, our tips and techniques to harvest all the resources from the Solar System. To push and pull worlds, to heat them up, cool them down and use their raw materials to house humanity’s growing, ever expanding population.

As we nearly achieve our Type II civilization status, and control all the energy from our Sun and all the resources of the Solar System, we set our sights on a new goal: doing the same thing for the entire Milky Way Galaxy.

Perhaps in a few million years, we’ll create another guide for you, to help you make this transition as efficiently as possible.

Good luck!

Boulder Extraction and Robotic Arm Mechanisms For NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission Start Rigorous Testing at NASA Goddard

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.

NASA is leveraging technology originally developed for satellite servicing such as with the Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM) currently on board the International Space Station (ISS) and repurposing them for the asteroid retrieval mission.

“Those are our two near term mission objectives that we are developing these technologies for,” Reed explained.

ARRM combines both robotic and human missions to advance the new technologies required for NASA’s agency wide ‘Journey to Mars’ objective of sending a human mission to the Martian system in the 2030s.

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.

This engineering design unit of the robotic servicing arm is under development to autonomously extract a boulder off an asteroid for NASA’s asteroid retrieval mission and  is being tested at NASA Goddard.   It has seven degrees of freedom and mimics a human arm.   Credit: Ken Kremer/
This engineering design unit of the robotic servicing arm is under development to autonomously extract a boulder off an asteroid for NASA’s asteroid retrieval mission and is being tested at NASA Goddard. It has seven degrees of freedom and mimics a human arm. Credit: Ken Kremer/

“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.”

Capture Module comprising two robotic servicing arms and three boulder grappling contact and restraint system legs for NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM).   Credit: NASA
Capture Module comprising two robotic servicing arms and three boulder grappling contact and restraint system legs for NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM). Credit: NASA
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.”

Artists concept of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission capturing an asteroid boulder before redirecting it to a astronaut-accessible orbit around Earth's moon.  Credits: NASA
Artists concept of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission capturing an asteroid boulder before redirecting it to a astronaut-accessible orbit around Earth’s moon. Credits: NASA

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 Planet rovers 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.

View of the robotic arm above and gripper tool below that initially grabs the asteroid boulder before the capture legs wrap around as planned for NASA’s upcoming unmanned ARRM Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission that will later dock with an Orion crew vehicle. Credit: Ken Kremer/
View of the robotic arm above and gripper tool below that initially grabs the asteroid boulder before the capture legs wrap around as planned for NASA’s upcoming unmanned ARRM Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission that will later dock with an Orion crew vehicle. Credit: Ken Kremer/

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.

Orion crew capsule docks to NASA’s asteroid redirect vehicle grappling captured asteroid boulder orbiting the Moon. Credit: NASA
Orion crew capsule docks to NASA’s asteroid redirect vehicle grappling captured asteroid boulder orbiting the Moon. Credit: NASA

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.

Ken Kremer

At NASA Goddard robotics lab Ben Reed/NASA Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office (SSCO) Deputy Project Manager and Ken Kremer/Universe Today discuss the robotic servicing arm and asteroid boulder capture mechanism being tested for NASA’s upcoming unmanned ARRM Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission that will dock with an Orion crew vehicle in lunar orbit by the mid 2020s for sample return collection. Credit: Ken Kremer/
At NASA Goddard robotics lab Ben Reed/NASA Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office (SSCO) Deputy Project Manager and Ken Kremer/Universe Today discuss the robotic servicing arm and asteroid boulder capture mechanism being tested for NASA’s upcoming unmanned ARRM Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission that will dock with an Orion crew vehicle in lunar orbit by the mid 2020s for sample return collection. Credit: Ken Kremer/

What’s The Asteroid Capture Mission Going to Look Like? NASA’s Starting Its Review

It’s still unclear if NASA will receive Congressional funding or authorization to do an asteroid retrieval proposal backed by President Barack Obama’s administration, but as missions take time to plan, the agency is moving ahead with its work for now.

NASA just did a mission formulation review this week to look at some internal studies on the mission. It also is starting to wade through hundreds of ideas the space community submitted concerning the mission.

“With the mission formulation review complete, agency officials now will begin integrating the most highly-rated concepts into an asteroid mission baseline concept to further develop in 2014,” NASA stated. The agency was light on details, but more information should be forthcoming when the process is further along.

Concept of Spacecraft with Asteroid Capture Mechanism Deployed. Credit: NASA.
Concept of Spacecraft with Asteroid Capture Mechanism Deployed. Credit: NASA.

The agency’s fiscal 2014 budget proposal suggests robotically picking up an asteroid, steering it closer to Earth, and putting it in a safe orbit where probes and possibly astronauts could visit. The budget is still being moved through Congressional committees and we won’t know until later this year just how much money will be available for NASA, and what initiatives the agency will be allowed to do.

For more information, be sure to read this past article from Universe Today editor Nancy Atkinson looking in detail at NASA’s asteroid retrieval mission. It includes information on what technology could be used, and the history of NASA’s quest to explore asteroids.

Space rocks have hit the headlines several times this year, particularly when one exploded over the area of Chelyabinsk, Russia earlier in 2013. NASA and several other groups have ongoing searches for asteroids and other small bodies in our solar system to catalog and calculate the orbits for as many as they can find. No imminent threats are known.

NASA Alters 1st Orion/SLS Flight – Bold Upgrade to Deep Space Asteroid Harbinger Planned

NASA Orion spacecraft blasts off atop 1st Space Launch System rocket in 2017 – attached to European provided service module – on an ambitious mission to explore Deep Space some 40,000 miles beyond the Moon, where an asteroid could be relocated as early as 2021. Credit: NASA
Story updated with further details[/caption]

NASA managers have announced a bold new plan to significantly alter and upgrade the goals and complexity of the 1st mission of the integrated Orion/Space Launch System (SLS) human exploration architecture – planned for blastoff in late 2017.

The ambitious first flight, called Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), would be targeted to send an unpiloted Orion spacecraft to a point more than 40,000 miles (70,000 kilometers) beyond the Moon as a forerunner supporting NASA’s new Asteroid Redirect Initiative – recently approved by the Obama Administration.

The EM-1 flight will now serve as an elaborate harbinger to NASA’s likewise enhanced EM-2 mission, which would dispatch a crew of astronauts for up close investigation of a small Near Earth Asteroid relocated to the Moon’s vicinity.

Orion crew module separates from Space Launch System (SLS) upper stage. Credit: NASA
Orion crew module separates from Space Launch System (SLS) upper stage. Credit: NASA

Until recently NASA’s plan had been to launch the first crewed Orion atop the 2nd SLS rocket in 2021 to a high orbit around the moon on the EM-2 mission, said NASA Associate Administrator Lori Garver in an prior interview with me at the Kennedy Space Center.

Concept of NASA spacecraft with Asteroid capture mechanism deployed to redirect a small space rock to a stable lunar orbit for later study by astronauts aboard Orion crew capsule. Credit: NASA.
Concept of NASA spacecraft with Asteroid capture mechanism deployed to redirect a small space rock to a stable lunar orbit for later study by astronauts aboard Orion crew capsule. Credit: NASA.

The enhanced EM-1 flight would involve launching an unmanned Orion, fully integrated with the Block 1 SLS to a Deep Retrograde Orbit (DRO) near the moon, a stable orbit in the Earth-moon system where an asteroid could be moved to as early as 2021.

Orion’s mission duration would be nearly tripled to 25 days from the original 10 days.

“The EM-1 mission with include approximately nine days outbound, three to six days in deep retrograde orbit and nine days back,” Brandi Dean, NASA Johnson Space Center spokeswoman told Universe Today exclusively.

The proposed much more technologically difficult EM-1 mission would allow for an exceptionally more vigorous work out and evaluation of the design of all flight systems for both Orion and SLS before risking a flight with humans aboard.

Asteroid Capture in Progress
Asteroid Capture in Progress

A slew of additional thruster firings would exercise the engines to change orbital parameters outbound, around the moon and inbound for reentry.

The current Deep Retrograde Orbit (DRO) plan includes several thruster firings from the Orion service module, including a powered lunar flyby, an insertion at DRO, an extraction maneuver from the DRO and a powered flyby on return to Earth.

Orion would be outfitted with sensors to collect a wide variety of measurements to evaluate its operation in the harsh space environment.

“EM-1 will have a compliment of both operational flight instrumentation and development flight instrumentation. This instrumentation suite gives us the ability to measure many attributes of system functionality and performance, including thermal, stress, displacement, acceleration, pressure and radiation,” Dean told me.

The EM-1 flight has many years of planning and development ahead and further revisions prior to the 2017 liftoff are likely.

“Final flight test objectives and the exact set of instrumentation required to meet those objectives is currently under development,” Dean explained.

Orion is NASA’s next generation manned space vehicle following the retirement of NASA’s trio of Space Shuttles in 2011.

The SLS launcher will be the most powerful and capable rocket ever built by humans – exceeding the liftoff thrust of the Apollo era Moon landing booster, the mighty Saturn V.

“We sent Apollo around the moon before we landed on it and tested the space shuttle’s landing performance before it ever returned from space.” said Dan Dumbacher, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development, in a statement.

“We’ve always planned for EM-1 to serve as the first test of SLS and Orion together and as a critical step in preparing for crewed flights. This change still gives us that opportunity and also gives us a chance to test operations planning ahead of our mission to a relocated asteroid.”

Both Orion and SLS are under active and accelerating development by NASA and its industrial partners.

The 1st Orion capsule is slated to blast off on the unpiloted EFT-1 test flight in September 2014 atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket on a two orbit test flight to an altitude of 3,600 miles above Earth’s surface.

Technicians work on mockups of the Orion crew capsule, Service Module and 6 ton Launch Abort System (LAS) to simulate critical assembly techniques inside the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida for the EFT-1 mission due to liftoff in September 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer/
Technicians work on mockups of the Orion crew capsule, Service Module and 6 ton Launch Abort System (LAS) to simulate critical assembly techniques inside the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida for the EFT-1 mission due to liftoff in September 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer/

It will then reenter Earth’s atmosphere at speeds of about 20,000 MPH (11 km/sec) and endure temperatures of 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit in a critical test designed to evaluate the performance of Orion’s heatshield and numerous spacecraft systems.

Orion EFT-1 is already under construction at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) by prime contractor Lockheed Martin – read my earlier story here.

Integration and stacking tests with Orion’s emergency Launch Abort System are also in progress at KSC – details here.

NASA says the SLS is also in the midst of a extensive review process called the Preliminary Design Review (PDR) to ensure that all launch vehicle components and systems will achieve the specified performance targets and be completed in time to meet the 2017 launch date. The PDR will be completed later this summer.

NASA’s goal with Orion/SLS is to send humans to the Moon and other Deep Space destinations like Asteroids and Mars for the first time in over forty years since the final manned lunar landing by Apollo 17 back in 1972.

NASA Headquarters will make a final decision on upgrading the EM-1 mission after extensive technical reviews this summer.

Ken Kremer

Schematic of Orion components. Credit: NASA
Schematic of Orion components. Credit: NASA