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/kenkremer.com
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/kenkremer.com

“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/kenkremer.com
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/kenkremer.com

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/kenkremer.com
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/kenkremer.com

First Manned Flight of NASA’s Orion Deep Space Capsule Could Slip to 2023

The first manned flight of NASA’s Orion deep space capsule – currently under development – could slip two years from 2021 to 2023 due to a variety of budget and technical issues, top NASA officials announced on Wednesday, Sept. 16.

The potential two year postponement of Orion’s first flight with astronauts follows on the heels of the agency’s recently completed rigorous review of the programs status from a budgetary, technical, engineering, safety and risk assessment analysis of the vehicles systems and subsystems.

But Orion’s launch delay has already been condemned by some in Congress who accuse the Obama Administration of purposely shortchanging funding for the program.

Based on the budget available and all the work remaining to be accomplished, liftoff of the first Orion test flight with an astronaut crew is likely to occur “no later than April 2023,” said NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot at the Sept. 16 briefing for reporters.

NASA had been marching towards an August 2021 liftoff for the maiden crewed Orion on a test flight dubbed Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2), until Lightfoot’s announcement.

Lightfoot added that although August 2021 is still NASA’s officially targeted launch date for EM-2, achieving that early goal is not likely as a direct result of the program review.

“The team is still working toward a launch in August 2021, but have much less confidence in achieving that. But we are not changing that date for EM-2 at this time.”

“But we’re committing that we’ll be no later than April 2023.”

“It’s not a very high confidence level [on making the August 2021 launch date], I’ll tell you that, just because of the things we see historically pop up.”

Orion is being developed by NASA to send America’s astronauts on journeys venturing farther into deep space than ever before – back to the Moon first and then beyond to Asteroids, Mars and other destinations in our Solar System.

Artist's conception of NASA's Space Launch System with Orion crewed deep space capsule. Credit: NASA
Artist’s conception of NASA’s Space Launch System with Orion crewed deep space capsule. Credit: NASA

Orion’s likely launch slip is the direct fallout from NASA’s recently completed internal program review called Key Decision Point C (KDP-C).

The KDC-P review assesses all the technological work and advancements required for launch to design, develop and manufacture Orion and that can be accomplished based on the Federal budget that will be available to carry out the program successfully.

“The KDC-P analysis just completed and decision to move forward with the Orion program is based on a 70% confidence level of success,” notes Lightfoot.

“The budget is a factor in the timing for the projection. It is based on the President’s current budget.”

“The decision commits NASA to a development cost baseline of $6.77 billion from October 2015 through the first crewed mission (EM-2) and a commitment to be ready for a launch with astronauts no later than April 2023.”

“EM-2 is a full up Orion on a human mission,” he said.

The EM-2 mission would last about 3 weeks and fly in a lunar retrograde orbit. It would carry astronauts beyond the Moon and further out into space than ever before.

Prior to EM-2, Orion’s next test flight is the uncrewed EM-1 mission targeted to launch no later than November 2018 – from Launch Complex 39-B at the Kennedy Space Center.

EM-1 will blastoff on the inaugural launch of NASA’s mammoth Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift booster concurrently under development. The SLS will be configured in its initial 70-metric-ton (77-ton) version with a liftoff thrust of 8.4 million pounds. It will boost an unmanned Orion on an approximately three week long test flight beyond the Moon and back.

Toward that goal, NASA is also currently testing the RS-25 first stage engines that will power SLS – as outlined in my recent story here.

Orion’s inaugural mission dubbed Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT) was successfully launched on a flawless flight on Dec. 5, 2014 atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014.   Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Orion learned a lot from EFT-1 and the lessons learned are being incorporated into the EM-1 and EM-2 missions.

Among the very few changes is an alteration in the heat shield from a monolithic to a block design that will vastly simplify its manufacture.

“We are making the heat shield change as a result of what we leaned on EFT-1,” said William Gerstenmaier, the agency’s associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at NASA Headquarters, at the briefing.

“The Orion Program has done incredible work, progressing every day and meeting milestones to prepare for our next missions. The team will keep working toward an earlier readiness date for a first crewed flight, but will be ready no later than April 2023, and we will keep the spacecraft, rocket and ground systems moving at their own best possible paces.”

Some members of Congress and others have said that delays in the Orion and SLS program are also a direct result of funding shortfalls caused by budget cuts in the programs, and condemned the Obama Administrations 2016 NASA budget request.

In fact, the Obama Administration did request $440 million less in the 2016 NASA budget request vs. the 2015 request.

“Once again, the Obama administration is choosing to delay deep space exploration priorities such as Orion and the Space Launch System that will take U.S. astronauts to the Moon, Mars, and beyond, said Rep Lamar Smith (R-Texas) House Committee Chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.

“While this administration has consistently cut funding for these programs and delayed their development, Congress has consistently restored funding as part of our commitment to maintaining American leadership in space,” said Chairman Smith.

“We must chart a compelling course for our nation’s space program so that we can continue to inspire future generations of scientists, engineers and explorers. I urge this administration to follow the lead of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s NASA Authorization Act to fully fund NASA’s exploration programs.”

Smith added that he “has repeatedly criticized the Obama administration for failure to request adequate funding for Orion and the Space Launch System; the administration’s FY16 budget request proposed cuts of more than $440 million for the programs.”

“The House Science Committee’s NASA Authorization Act for 2016 and 2017 sought to restore $440 million to these crucial programs being developed to return U.S. astronauts to deep space destinations such as the Moon and Mars. That bill also restored funding for planetary science accounts that have been responsible for missions such as the recent Pluto fly-by, and provided full funding for the other space exploration programs such as Commercial Crew and Commercial Cargo programs.”

Homecoming view of NASA’s first Orion spacecraft after returning to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 19, 2014 after successful blastoff on Dec. 5, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Homecoming view of NASA’s first Orion spacecraft after returning to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 19, 2014 after successful blastoff on Dec. 5, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

How NASA Can be Innovative on Reduced Budgets

OTTAWA, CANADA — With 6,000 hailstorm divots scarring a space shuttle external tank, and no backup immediately available to fly, NASA found itself with a problem in February 2007.

The STS-117 mission was supposed to carry solar panels and connecting trusses up to the station, so changing the shuttle rotation would affect construction. What to do?

“I’ve got this tank that takes us a bit over two years to manufacture, and essentially it looks like your car here that was peppered by a hailstorm, and what are we going to do?” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator of the human exploration and operations directorate, speaking today (Nov. 14) at the Canadian Space Society’s annual summit in Ottawa, Canada.

“Mike Griffin was the administrator at the time. He said, ‘Get rid of that tank and put another one out there,’ and we didn’t have another one.”

To respond to the problem — based mostly on the word of two technicians who felt repairs were possible, Gerstenmaier said — NASA set out to fix the problem. Communications flew between the launch site in Florida and the manufacturer in New Orleans. NASA had a program that kept track of tiles on the shuttle, and modified it to take care of the dings. The mission lifted off successfully, using the repaired tank, in June 2007 — three months after the incident.

Bill Gerstenmaier in Kennedy Space Center's Firing Room 4 for the of space shuttle Discovery on the STS-128 mission in 2009. In the background are Chris Scolese, NASA associate administrator, and Charlie Bolden, NASA Administrator. Credit: NASA
Bill Gerstenmaier in Kennedy Space Center’s Firing Room 4 for the of space shuttle Discovery on the STS-128 mission in 2009. In the background are Chris Scolese, NASA associate administrator, and Charlie Bolden, NASA Administrator. Credit: NASA

Gerstenmaier said this demonstrates that it’s possible to be innovative on reduced budgets, and drew parallels to what NASA is facing right now as it fights through fiscal 2014 budget discussions.

“We have to turn them not into a ‘woe is me’ kind of discussion, but rise above that and pull out the innovation, and that’s what we’re doing in this budget,” he said.

Reduced budgets have helped NASA make use of reduced resources before, he added. It encouraged the agency to tender out to commercial companies (such as SpaceX) for cargo flights to the space station, even though development would occur on the fly. Gerstenmaier, however, did not address concerns that the new budget could cut back commercial crew budgets even further.

Another example of past innovation by both NASA and the Canadian Space Agency, Gerstenmaier said, occurred when the space station’s Canadarm2 robotic arm was adapted to capture these commercial cargo vehicles and berth them into station. If the Canadians had been told in the 1990s — when the space station was just beginning — that the arm would have been required to do this, they likely would have balked, Gerstenmaier said.

While only touching lightly on the ongoing budget discussions, Gerstenmaier did say NASA is keeping an eye on the efforts of Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield and others as it continues to develop outreach. He joked that the movie “Gravity” really showed the divide between space fans and the general public.

“We see it one way and [say] that isn’t physically correct … it doesn’t actually look like that in space. This is wrong,” he said. “Then the general public says ‘this is really stressful, she lost her child,’ — they’re in this other mode. We’re sitting next to each other in the theater. My non-space colleague is crying, and I’m saying this violates the law of physics.”

Some of Gerstenmaier’s past work in NASA includes top managerial positions in the shuttle//Mir program, space shuttle program integration, the International Space Station and NASA’s space operations directorate (where he oversaw the final 21 space shuttle missions.)