SpacePolicyOnline.com Latest News
Russia has not announced a date to retry the launch of its new Angara booster, but officials said today (June 30) that the rocket was rolled back from the launch pad to its assembly and test facility. The launch was scrubbed on Friday (June 27) and a Russian official said at the time they would try again the next day, but fixing the problem apparently is more involved than initially thought.
This suborbital test of the smallest version of Angara is to take place from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome near the Arctic Circle. The approximately 25 minute flight carrying a dummy payload will terminate at Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula.
Several versions of Angara are planned to replace many of the venerable Soviet-era rockets in use for decades. Development of the Angara family began in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The two-stage rocket uses environmentally-friendly fuels (liquid oxygen/kerosene and liquid oxygen/hydrogen). Three versons now in development will be able to launch 3.7 tons, 14.6 tons, or 25 tons to low Earth orbit (LEO) respectively.
Today, Russia's RIA Novosti news service clarified that the launch was scrubbed just 15 seconds before liftoff because of a "poorly sealed drainage pressurization valve within the oxidizer manifold." Angara manufacturer Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center acknowledged that the rocket will be removed from the launch pad and returned to its assembly and test facility for thorough tests.
No date or range of dates was announced for the next launch attempt, but presumably it will be days, at least.
This edition of "What's Happening in Space Policy" covers THREE weeks rather than one since so many people -- including Congress -- are on vacation this coming week as the United States celebrates the July 4th (Independence Day) holiday and future activities have not yet been announced. Here is our list of events June 30 - July 18, 2014 and any insight we can offer about them. The Senate is scheduled to return for legislative business on July 7 and the House on July 8.
During the Weeks
There could be some particularly interesting launches in the next three weeks -- or not.
Russia's launch of its new Angara rocket was postponed in the final minutes of countdown on June 27. As of today (June 29), Russian government and news sources have been silent about what caused the abort or when a new attempt will take place. Angara is a family of launch vehicles that has been under development for about the past 20 years, since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The new vehicles of various capabilities are intended to replace many of the Soviet-era rockets. This suborbital test flight is of the smallest version and carries a dummy payload.
Here in the United States, SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket also experienced an anomaly during countdown on June 22. It was the latest delay in the launch of six next-generation communications satellites for Orbcomm. Like the Russians, SpaceX was not very forthcoming about what the problem was or how long it would take to fix. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said during a radio interview on The Space Show this past week, however, that the problem involves the first stage thrust vector control actuator and launch probably will not take place until at least July 14. That information is not posted on SpaceX's website, however.
Also uncertain is when Orbital Sciences will conduct the next cargo run to the International Space Station (ISS), Orb-2. Orbital is investigating the failure of an AJ-26 rocket engine during a May 22 test at Stennis Space Center before deciding whether to clear the Antares rocket designated to take a Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the ISS. The engine that failed is for a launch in 2015, but the company needs to determine whether the problem affects more than that one engine. The "no earlier than" launch date for Orb-2 at the moment is July 10. The launch was originally scheduled for May and initially delayed because a SpaceX cargo flight to ISS was postponed, but the May 22 engine test failure led to several additional delays.
One U.S. launch that is on schedule, as of today at least, is NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2). Launch is scheduled for very early in the morning of July 1 (2:56 am Pacific time, 5:56 am Eastern). OCO-2 is a replacement for the original OCO, which was lost in a launch failure in 2009.
What's on tap in Congress when it returns is up in the air. The House is passing appropriations bills, but the process in the Senate remains stuck. Whether any agreement will be reached to allow progress once the Senate returns on July 7 remains to be seen. The new fiscal year begins on October 1, which may seem a long time away, but Congress will be in recess all of August, so there are few legislative days available to get work done.
In short, the space business and the space policy business is in an uncertain period. Keep checking back here for updates!
Sunday, June 29
Tuesday, July 1
Thursday, July 10
Wednesday, July 16
Thursday, July 17
Thursday-Friday, July 17-18
UPDATE, JUNE 28, 2014, 8:00 am ET: No news about when the launch will take place.
JUNE 27, 2014: Russia's attempt at a suborbital test launch of its new Angara rocket was scrubbed today. One Russian official indicated early on that another attempt could be made tomorrow (Saturday, June 28), but no official announcement has been made yet. Rumors circulating on the Internet suggest it may be several days or even longer.
The launch was intended to take place at 11:15 GMT (7:15 am EDT) but was aborted by an automatic system in the final minutes. Some reports say that the scrub was just over a minute before launch while others say it was less than a minute.
Angara is a family of launch vehicles developed and built after the collapse of the Soviet Union and is ultimately intended to replace many of the Soviet-era rockets. This test launch is of the smallest version of Angara. It will be launched from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome near the Arctic Circle with a trajectory that will take it over Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula. The flight time is about 25 minutes. A dummy payload is the cargo.
Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center, which manufactures Angara and many other Russian rockets, posted a cryptic statement in Russian on its website that the launch did not take place and a new date "will be announced later." (The press release is only on the Russian-language version of the company's website, not the English-language version.)
No details of the abort have been provided yet, only that it was for "technical reasons." One Russian media source quoted Alexander Golovko, commander of Russia's aerospace defense troops, as saying the next attempt would be tomorrow (July 28) at 3:15 pm Moscow Time (11:15 GMT, 7:15 am EDT -- the same time as today). That report was soon after the abort, however. No further word has appeared in the Russian media and there are rumors that it may be a several day delay at least. Anatoly Zak at RussianSpaceWeb.com cites industry sources chatting on a Russian space news forum (Novosti Kosmonavtiki) as suggesting it could take a week if the problem was a loss of pressure on a flexible gas line or more than one week if it was a valve on the oxidizer line.
Check back here for updates as they become available.
A lot is riding on a success for Khrunichev, which is under pressure because of a string of launch failures including a Proton failure in May. Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly was watching the launch via teleconference and demanded answers within an hour as to what went wrong.
SpaceX is asking permission to amend its lawsuit against the Air Force for awarding a block-buy contract to the United Launch Alliance (ULA) in light of statements made in a letter from Senator John McCain (R-AZ) to the head of the defense department's acquisition office.
McCain sent a letter to Frank Kendall, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics on June 20 asking about the price the Air Force pays for Russian RD-180 engines that are used in ULA's Atlas V rocket. McCain said that he is "aware of claims that the engines have been sold by NPO Energomash to RD Amross at a much lower price than RD Amross charges ULA for them." He asked nine detailed questions about RD-Amross including pricing data between Energomash and RD Amross, between RD Amross and ULA, and between ULA and the Air Force. Energomash manufactures the RD-180 engines. RD-Amross is a joint venture between Energomash and United Technologies that supplies the engines to ULA.
In its proposed amendment to the lawsuit it filed in April, SpaceX asserts that it learned from McCain's letter that there are questions about the prices the Air Force pays for RD-180s and whether ULA met the requirement to provide certified cost and pricing information as part of its bid for the contract, which was awarded in 2013. SpaceX is suing the Air Force because it was a sole-source award, rather than allowing competition.
"Based on Senator McCain's letter, it appears that ULA failed to provide certified cost and pricing data for the RD-180 engines and/or the Air Force failed to rationally assess whether it was paying a fair and reasonable price for those engines," the SpaceX amendment states. If ULA had provided that data, the Air Force "would have been forced to confront the fact that at least one of its suppliers is fleecing the United States taxpayer."
SpaceX wants to be able to compete for national security space launches. The Air Force requires potential launch providers -- "new entrants" -- to proceed through a certification process. SpaceX is still in that process. ULA therefore insists that SpaceX was not, and is not, certified to compete for the contract that was awarded last year.
SpaceX filed the lawsuit in the U.S Court of Federal Claims. Yesterday's filing asks the Court to allow it to amend the filing even though certain deadlines have passed because it only became aware that ULA may not have fulfilled the requirement for providing certified cost and pricing data due to McCain's letter.
UPDATE, June 27, 2014, 8:25 am ET: The launch has been postponed. Some reports say the problem is a leaky valve that needs to be replaced and they will try again tomorrow (June 28). We'll post more details when they are available.
ORIGINAL STORY, June 26, 2014: Russia is getting ready for the first test launch of a new rocket family, Angara, tomorrow (June 27, 2014). The launch, from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome near the Arctic Circle, is scheduled for 15:15 Moscow Time (7:15 am Eastern Daylight Time).
This is a suborbital test launch of the smallest version of the rocket, Angara 1, carrying a simulated payload. Test launches are just that, tests, but Angara's manufacturer, Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center, has a lot riding on success. A number of failures of its rockets or upper stages over the past several years have undermined confidence in the company. Three Khrunichev officials were fired and the head of the company resigned 10 months ago following a July 2013 Proton launch failure caused by improperly installed attitude control sensors. Another Proton failed on May 15, 2014 because of a failed bearing in the third stage. The rocket has not yet returned to flight.
Russia plans to field several versions of Angara, a family of rockets intended eventually to replace a number of venerable Russian rockets including Cosmos-3M, Tsyklon, Rokot, Soyuz and Proton. Russia's RIA Novosti news agency posted an English-language video on YouTube providing an overview of the program and a simulation of production and launch. Angara's first stage is fueled by liquid oxygen (LOX) and kerosene and the second stage by LOX and hydrogen, considered more environmentally friendly than other rocket fuels.
Tomorrow's launch is from Plesetsk, but many of the launches are expected to take place from a new launch site under construction in Siberia called Vostochny. Russia is building the launch site to enable it to move launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to within Russia's borders. Kazakhstan gained independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and began charging Russia $115 million a year to lease the site.
Anatoly Zak at RussianSpaceWeb.com maintains a website with up-to-the-minute postings about Angara that trace the program from its origins 20 years ago to preparations for tomorrow's launch of Angara-1.2PP. The 1.2 refers to this version of Angara and PP is for Pervy Polyot -- First Flight -- Zak explains. He shows versions of Angara with a payload to low Earth orbit (LEO) capability from 2 tons (Angara 1.1) to 35 tons (Angara 7), but notes that Angara 7 did not proceed past concept studies. The largest version still planned is Angara 5 with a payload capability of 25 tons to LEO, similar to the U.S. Delta IV Heavy, currently our most capable rocket.
Correction: The original version of this story reported that the launch time was 18:15 Moscow Time (10:15 am ET) based on information published on RussianSpaceWeb.com, but the intended launch time in fact was 15:15 Moscow Time (7:15 am ET), which was corrected by RussianSpaceWeb.com after the original story went to press.
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden is among the dignitaries who will be on hand to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the American Astronautical Society (AAS) on July 16, 2014. JPL Director Charles Elachi will also be there to present the AAS Lifetime Achievement Award to Ed Stone, former JPL Director and project scientist for the Voyager probes.
Voyager 1 and 2 continue to return data from the outer edges of the solar system almost 40 years after they were launched. Their primary mission was returning data as they flew past the outer planets -- Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus -- but they have continued a mission of discovery since then. Voyager 1 recently became the first spacecraft to enter interstellar space.
Bolden will join former astronaut and AIAA Executive Director Sandy Magnus, AAS Board member Laura Delgado López of the Secure World Foundation, and Trevor Waddell of the Aerospace Industries Association in a panel discussion about the future of the space program after a showing of the film "I Want to be an Astronaut," which aims to encourage STEM education. NASA Associate Administrator for Science Mission Directorate and former astronaut John Grunsfeld will moderate the panel.
The event will be held from 6:00-9:00 pm ET at the National Academy of Sciences building, 2101 Constitution Avenue, NW, Washington, DC. A reception follows in the NAS building's Great Hall. Coincidentally, July 16 is also the 45th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11.
The event is free, but RSVP by July 11 is REQUIRED to email@example.com.
The new National Research Council (NRC) report on the future of human space exploration received a warm reception today at a House committee hearing, but partisan tensions among committee members were evident even if they were not directly aimed at NASA.
The NRC study is fairly well aligned with the views of many members of Congress in terms of the long term goal for human exploration (landing people on Mars), a lack of enthusiasm for President Obama’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), and the need for the United States to be the global leader in human space exploration with significant international partnerships.
That long term goal has broad support, including from the Obama Administration. The seemingly endless debate is about the steps for getting there. In the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, Congress directed NASA to contract with the NRC for this study to get closer to resolving those steps. Today’s hearing before the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee was the first opportunity for Congress to hear the results of the study formally.
The NRC report advocates a stepping-stone approach to achieving the “horizon goal” of humans on Mars. It assessed three potential “pathways,” but did not choose among them. Instead it focused on where each of the pathways needed new technologies and whether those technologies were “dead ends” or would build upon each other to achieve the goal.
House SS&T committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) is a strong proponent of the Mars Flyby 2021 concept, which is at odds with NRC’s approach. Smith did not mention that concept either in his opening statement or during questions to the witnesses today. The concept envisions launching a small crew on a one-and-a-half-year journey to flyby (not orbit or land on) Mars in 2021 on the first crewed flight of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft. Critics argue it is too risky and has little reward since it is a one-time event, not part of a procession of missions that ultimately leads to humans on the surface of Mars.
Smith and other Republicans used the hearing to once again criticize the Obama Administration’s ARM as, at best, a diversion from the Mars goal. They also complained that NASA spends too much on climate research and not enough on human exploration. NASA’s annual earth science budget is about $1.8 billion. The budget for SLS and Orion is approximately $4 billion a year. If funding for the International Space Station – critical to achieving the goal of sending humans to Mars according to NASA – is added, the total for NASA’s human spaceflight program is on the order of $7 billion a year.
Smith lambasted the Administration for requesting a FY2015 budget for NASA that is $1.8 billion less than its budget during the last year of the George W. Bush Administration, saying that demonstrates that NASA is not an Administration priority. The budget request is $17.5 billion.
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the top Democrat on the committee, said that she found Smith’s comments “almost comical” considering the “struggle” the committee had last year over NASA’s authorization bill. At that time, on a party-line vote, Republicans approved a $16.9 billion budget for NASA, while Democrats were fighting for $18.1 billion. That bill was replaced this year by one (H.R. 4412) that represents bipartisan agreement on policy issues, but bypasses funding issues by authorizing funds only for FY2014, which is already underway.
The two parties have been locked in bruising debates on this committee in the past several weeks over reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act, the Department of Energy’s research and development programs, and what Republicans call the Environmental Protection Agency’s “secret science” regulatory process. This year’s agreement on H.R. 4412, which passed the House earlier this month, was a bright spot in committee bipartisanship.
Today, committee Democrats did not defend the President’s ARM project and while they did not directly criticize it, their disenchantment was clear. Johnson said she hopes the NRC report is “a first step in achieving a revitalized, focused exploration program for America” and called the NRC report a “wake-up call” that “we are not going to have a human space exploration program worthy of a great nation if we continue down the current path.”
The only witnesses were the co-chairs of the NRC study: Jonathan Lunine, a renowned space scientist at Cornell University, and Mitch Daniels, President of Purdue University and former Republican governor of Indiana.
Daniels and Lunine were frank in explaining the rationale for sending people to Mars at all and the challenges that lie ahead, both technical and political.
Lunine pointed out that there are many “myths that surround both public opinion and proven benefits” from human space exploration. The NRC study found that the public pays little attention to it and was not enamored of the Apollo program while it was underway. Today Apollo is “viewed as a source of inspiration and great pride by many if not most Americans,” Lunine said, but that was not true at the time. Instead, “it has been political leadership that determines” if new ventures are pursued and the public supports it retrospectively. Daniels remarked that if there was some “secret sauce to ignite public excitement” it would have been applied long ago.
He and Lunine repeatedly stressed the need for a “steadfast commitment” and a “disciplined, sustained approach” if Americans ever are to land on Mars, and that includes increasing the budget for human space exploration on the order of 2-3 percent above inflation. Committee members pressed the witnesses for precise cost estimates, but they demurred. Daniels, who was Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) from 2001-2003, said the NRC committee did not want to “commit the sin of false precision” and instead provided only a range of costs – hundreds of billions of dollars over decades. He commented that the human spaceflight budget is in the “tenths of a percent of the federal budget” and increases would be no more than “rounding errors.”
The NRC concluded that current law that prohibits NASA from bilateral cooperation with China is not in the nation’s best interest. The issue of NASA-China cooperation is a hot button issue that could have been a heated point of contention today, but it was not. Some committee members raised it, but the witnesses generally deflected the questions and the members chose not to press them on it. Daniels said that the NRC committee was asking only that everyone remain open to such cooperation and pointed out that geopolitical relationships change over time and sending people to Mars is a multi-decade endeavor. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), a staunch critic of the Chinese government and supporter of the current law, even joked that considering how much money the United States borrows from China “if we don’t make them our partner we’re going to borrow it from them anyway.”
One criticism of the NRC report has been that it did not incorporate the potential importance of commercial partnerships, but Daniels parried that was not accurate. He said the committee met with leaders of the commercial space community and there are “a lot of possibilities there.”
Johnson summed up the situation by saying that “As Members of Congress, the ball is now is our court, and we have choices to make. We can choose to continue to argue about which President or who in Congress is to blame for the current state of our human space exploration program, but I earnestly hope that we won’t. We are where we are, and we can’t change the past. Our focus needs to be on how we proceed from this point forward.”
UPDATE: This story was updated on June 26, 2014 reflecting denials from a Sea Launch official and the head of the Ukrainian Space Agency.
Geopolitical tensions between the United States and Russia could mean a hiatus in launches of the Sea Launch consortium until relationships improve according to a report in the Russian media. Sea Launch today is primarily a Russian company, but Boeing is still involved and the home port is Long Beach, CA.
Sea Launch uses Ukrainian Zenit-3SL rockets with a Russian upper stage to place satellites into geostationary orbit above the equator. Launches take place from a platform, Odyssey, that is a converted mobile ocean oil rig. Odyssey and its Sea Launch Commander command ship travel from Long Beach to the equator for the launch. The first launch was in 1999, but the company suffered several total or partial failures, including a spectacular failure at liftoff in 2007, and filed for bankruptcy in 2009. Originally, the company was owned 40 percent by Boeing, 25 percent by Russia's Energiya RSC, 20 percent by Norway's Kvaerner (which converted the oil rig) and 15 percent by Ukraine's Yuzhmash and Yuzhnoye. It emerged from bankruptcy in 2010 with 95 percent ownership by Energiya and the Zenit-3SL return to flight in September 2011. Another failure occurred in February 2013, but Sea Launch returned to flight again on May 26, 2014 with the successful launch of EUTELSAT 3B.
The question is what the future holds for this multinational enterprise. Russia's RIA Novosti reported on June 24 that there are questions about whether the Zenit rockets can be built in Ukraine under current circumstances. It quoted an unnamed source in the space industry as suggesting that a decision may be made soon to mothball the platform: "He [the industry source] said if Russia, the United States and Ukraine fail to stabilize their relations, a decision may be made soon to mothball the Sea Launch until at least 2016." RIA Novosti continues that the source added that it would not mean additional launches could not take place, but that it would take longer to get the launch complex ready.
The Sea Launch website does not provide a launch manifest showing upcoming launches so it is not easy to discern whether a hiatus through 2016 would have much impact on the company's business. Spaceflightnow.com has a list of upcoming world-wide launches through March 2015; none are by Sea Launch. The FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation's most recent launch forecast volume (from May 2013) includes launches through all of 2015; none in 2015 are Sea Launch, although three are to-be-determined. RIA Novosti said only that four Sea Launch Zenits are in various stages of construction at Yuzhnoye.
Peter Stier, deputy head of sales and marketing at Sea Launch, subsequently denied to the Moscow Times that the company is currently planning to mothball Odyssey or Sea Launch Commander, although is it "exploring contingency plans" in case such a step is needed. The head of the Ukrainian Space Agency, Yuri Alexeyev, told Interfax that the supply of Zenit rockets for Sea Launch is not in jeopardy.
The head of NASA’s human exploration program, Bill Gerstenmaier, had good words to say today about the new National Research Council (NRC) report on the future of human space exploration. Until today, the only public NASA reaction was a brief press release the day the report was released.
Gerstenmaier briefed the Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) committee of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) at NASA Headquarters. At the end of his presentation, he was asked about the NRC report – “Pathways to Exploration: Rationales and Approaches for a U.S. Program of Human Space Exploration.”
“I think there are a lot of good things in the report that are noteworthy,” he said, adding that “there may be some actionable items” in the report that the committee might want to take back to NAC. He also said that it would be interesting to see how the report is received by Congress at the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee hearing on Wednesday.
Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD), and his team have been diligently endeavoring to articulate how the Obama Administration’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) fits into a long term goal of sending humans to Mars. ARM has received little support in Congress or the space community broadly.
In a number of presentations this year, he has laid out NASA’s view of the steps to Mars, including ARM, and makes a point of distinguishing between “exploration” and “pioneering.” Exploration is an out-and-back paradigm while pioneering implies going to stay. He believes NASA should focus on pioneering.
Earlier in the day, Jason Crusan, HEOMD’s Director of Advanced Exploration Systems, followed that theme in providing an update on NASA’s strategy for sending humans to Mars, now referred to as the “Evolvable Mars Campaign” or EMC. Instead of Apollo-style trips, Crusan articulated a plan that builds up capabilities that enable regular trips to Mars, with staging areas in lunar orbit, at the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos, or other “low delta-V” locations where fuel requirements are minimized. The staging areas would be used to “aggregate” Mars “mission vehicle stacks” that would make the trip to and from Mars. Some elements of the stacks – like the crew module -- will make a direct return to Earth while others will return to the staging areas for refurbishment.
The key message was that it will be an evolutionary effort with one step building upon the next. The initial step is ongoing work on the International Space Station, the next step is ARM, and NASA is continuing to do trade studies on what comes next.
Whether ARM should be pursued or not is one area where NASA and the NRC disagree. The NRC concluded that it “has failed to engender substantial enthusiasm either in Congress or the scientific community.” Still, the two do agree on a number of issues: that Mars is the long term goal for human space exploration, that international and commercial partnerships are essential to achieving that goal, and that the U.S. Government will have to increase NASA’s human exploration budget above the rate of inflation if the goal is to be realized.
NASA has found six valid candidates so far in its ongoing hunt to find an asteroid to use for its Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) agency officials announced on Thursday. They also announced the award of 18 system concept study contracts valued at a total of $4.9 million.
The progress update comes roughly one year after the Obama Administration announced plans for ARM, a modification of President Obama’s 2010 directive to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 as the next step in human space exploration. Instead of sending astronauts to an asteroid, the ARM concept would bring the asteroid to the astronauts.
NASA divides ARM into three phases: identifying an appropriate asteroid; using a robotic spacecraft to capture the asteroid and nudge it into orbit around the Moon; and sending astronauts aboard an Orion spacecraft to collect and bring back samples of the asteroid.
“We don’t plan to, nor do we want to, stop looking for targets,” said Michele Gates, ARM program director, at Thursday’s press conference that featured panelists in Washington and others from around the globe joining in virtually. “We actually wouldn’t need to make a final selection of a target until one year before launch.”
Under current plans, the ARM robotic spacecraft is scheduled for launch in 2019. Two mission concepts are being considered. “Option A” would capture an entire asteroid less than 32 feet (10 meters) in diameter whereas “Option B” would collect a boulder less than 32 feet in diameter off of a large asteroid. The agency will choose which option to move forward with likely in mid-December, Gates said.
More than 11,000 near-Earth objects have been discovered and approximately 100 are being found monthly, said Paul Chodas, program scientist at NASA’s Near Earth Object Program. “Discovery is not enough,” he added. “We also have to consider characterization—that is learning about the physical properties of the asteroids.”
The asteroid candidates are being categorized as “potential” or “valid”. Potentials are “the ones that look good roughly and have roughly the right size,” Chodas said, whereas valids are those for which detailed information such as mass and boulders on the surface already have been derived and are “within the capability of the asteroid retrieval vehicle to bring back.”
The list so far is nine potentials for Option A, three of which are valids; and thousands of potentials, but only three valids, for Option B, Chodas said.
The panelists focused on asteroid 2011 MD, a valid candidate for Option A. “What you need to have is the kind of asteroid orbit that is very similar to Earth’s orbit and 2011 MD is one of those type of asteroids,” said David Tholen, astronomer at the University of Hawaii.
Infrared data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope reveal it is approximately 20 feet (6 meters) in diameter "perhaps resembling ... a rubble pile" with a "remarkably low density" according to a NASA press release.
The asteroid could fit in a home garage or might actually float in a swimming pool, Michael Mommert, a post-doctoral researcher at Northern Arizona University, said at the press conference.
“This is pretty unexpected because traditionally people thought that small asteroids like 2011 MD are just single pieces of rock or single boulders floating in space,” Mommert continued. The findings from Spitzer were published Thursday in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.
The opportunity to capture 2011 MD would be in 2024, but more observations are needed to find out what the asteroid really looks like. Other candidates include asteroid 2008 HU4, which will pass close enough to Earth in 2016 for better observations of its size, shape and rotation rate, and Bennu, which will get close up shots by NASA’s Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission in 2018. OSIRIS-REx is a robotic asteroid sample return mission.
At Thursday’s press conference the agency also announced 18 winners of contracts for system concept studies to further refine ARM. Approximately $4.9 million total will be awarded to fund the six-month studies, which will begin in July. The awards are in five areas: asteroid capture system, rendezvous sensors, adapting commercial spacecraft for the Asteroid Redirect Vehicle, partnerships for secondary payloads, and potential partnerships to enhance U.S. exploration activities in cis-lunar space in conjunction with the crewed mission.
NASA describes ARM as part of a pathway toward attaining the goal of eventually sending humans to Mars in the 2030s. The mission is very controversial and has won little support outside of the Obama Administration. The recently released National Research Council (NRC) report on the future of human space exploration was the latest to cast doubt on its utility as a step toward human exploration of Mars. The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee will hold a hearing on the NRC study on Wednesday (June 25).
Thursday’s press conference kicked off a two-day public virtual workshop series that celebrated the one-year anniversary of the White House’s Asteroid Grand Challenge to engage the public in the ARM effort.
Events of Interest