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Planetary Society supports NASA's asteroid redirect mission -- with reservations

Asteroid approaches Earth
Asteroid approaches Earth
NASA (public domain)

The Planetary Society has generally been critical of Obama administration space policy, especially budget cuts in planetary exploration. But Tuesday the organization came out firmly in support of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). The support comes with a caveat. There needs to be an independent cost assessment of the program.

The ARM, given what the Planetary Society regards as constrained NASA budget, is the best that can be expected in achieving the overall goal of sending humans to Mars. There is some scientific value to the project. It will test crucial technologies like electric propulsion and autonomous rendezvous and docking. It has resulting in a doubling of the budget for detecting near Earth objects.

Originally President Obama’s asteroid mission was understood to have consisted of sending astronauts millions of miles beyond the moon on a mission to a relatively large asteroid. This proved to be too challenging for the money the administration was willing to spend. So the ARM was proposed in its stead.

The project would involve sending an automatic asteroid capture robot with an electric propulsion system. It would capture a small asteroid or a boulder off of a larger asteroid and take it to lunar orbit. Then the captured asteroid would be visited by American astronauts flying in an Orion spacecraft launched by the heavy lift Space Launch System.

The cost for this project was pegged at a relatively modest $2.5 billion. The Planetary Society has doubts about this cost estimate, noting previous cases when cost overruns have undermined large scale NASA projects. The organization is demanding an independent accounting of the ARM to make sure that its true cost is understood going forward. This recommendation runs against the main argument that the Planetary Society is using to support the ARM, that it is cheap. There is no word what might happen to that support if the independent cost estimate concludes that the asteroid mission is indeed expensive.