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NASA's Asteroid Redirect Mission comes under increasing fire

asteroid passes by Earth
asteroid passes by Earth
NASA (public domain)

NASA’s planned Asteroid Redirect Mission is coming under increasing fire from a number of quarters. At the 11th Small Bodies Assessment Group meeting, asteroid expert and MIT planetary science professor Richard Binzel slammed the ARM as “the emperor with no clothes or at best with thin cloth” according to a Friday piece in Space Policy Online. A meeting of NASA’s Advisory Council also expressed skepticism about the utility of the mission.

The ARM, like Gaul, is divided into three parts. First, an asteroid about ten meters in length or a ten meter boulder from a bigger asteroid would be located. Then a robotic spacecraft, propelled by a solar electric ion engine, would collect the asteroid or boulder and move it to lunar orbit. Finally a team of astronauts, riding an Orion spacecraft launched by a heavy lift Space Launch System, would rendezvous with the captured asteroid or boulder, take samples, and return them to Earth.

Binzel’s critique of the ARM was based on both its scientific value and its usefulness for the “horizon goal” for sending astronauts to Mars. He compared what he regarded as the minimal scientific value of taking rock samples from a small asteroid to the Apollo moon landing, which he termed “transformative.” He also suggested that a better way to prepare for Mars would be to return to President Obama’s original vision of visiting an Earth approaching asteroid in its “native orbit.”

The NASA Advisory Council approached the ARM and deep space exploration plans in general from the prospective of cost. It questioned whether NASA could accomplish the ARM, not to mention going to Mars, on the thin budget it is now receiving. It thus touched on a persistent problem facing the space agency’s deep space exploration plans. There is great enthusiasm for exploration, whether to an asteroid, back to the moon, and/or to Mars. There also seems to be a lack of will to pay for it.

Until that situation is resolved, preferably by increasing NASA’s budget, space exploration will remain stuck on the launch pad.