Scientists at NASA have developed a way in which astronauts can retrieve asteroids. Furthermore, it may even help the United States put the first humans on Mars. The Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) will allow NASA to test the instruments and machinery needed for manned missions to the next planet.
Since the inception of the United States’ space program, amidst the Sputnik-driven space technology boom, astronauts have depended on our home planet for supplies and operational support. Due to this, missions only lasted a few days. Even our contemporary low-Earth orbit space missions last six months aboard the International Space Station. NASA tends to call these mission “Earth Reliant.” Considering the fuel needed to raise a rocket from the ground to escape velocity at 24,800 mph is immense, expensive, and particular inefficient, finding a way to launch from a permanent and manned space base is crucial.
The next available place for a pseudo-space base is in between low-Earth orbit and the moon. The environment around the moon varies greatly from low-Earth orbit. For example, cosmic and solar radiation is more intense and the ratio of micrometeorites and space junk from decommissioned satellites is much higher. Thus, shielding astronauts and their instruments from orbital perils poses a greater endeavor.
A manned mission to and from Mars is expected to last 500 days or longer if problems arise far from Earth. Since six to nine months are needed for travel both to and from the Red Planet, missions to Mars will need to be what NASA calls “Earth Independent.” NASA stated that they will be developing means of propulsion and resupplying through the ARM program where a plethora of new technologies and capabilities will be tested towards the goal enabling a mission to Mars.
At the core of this technological and astronomical endeavor of the ARM program is what NASA calls the Orion spacecraft.
On the propulsion side of the ARM program, NASA will be using advanced Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) instead of chemical propulsion. Like any internal combustion engine, chemical propulsion uses the standard nozzle and combustion chamber with carbon-based fuels. One of the problems with carbon-based fuels is that it will need to be transported to low-Earth orbit for use. Therefore, NASA will instead use a system that generates electricity from solar radiation to create an electromagnetic fields to accelerate charged atoms, or ions, to produce thrust. Although it may be a fairly small amount of thrust, considering that aerodynamics are nearly irrelevant in space propulsion and gravity is less of a factor, electromagnetic-driven spacecraft can achieve high speeds with an efficient use of available energy. NASA explained that the propulsion in the ARM mission uses five to 10 times less propellant due to SEP technology.
If all goes well at ARM’s lunar proving ground, crews will be set to initiate the program directive of capturing and retrieving a small asteroid. Astronauts aboard the Orion spacecraft will sample a redirected asteroid for scientific evaluation back on Earth. Moreover, an encounter with an asteroid could divulge unknown information about the composition and structure of the cosmic body. Some astrophysicists speculate that asteroids could contain the materials needed to create fuel, extract water, and even billions of dollars’ worth of metal ores and platinum-class metals.
Such an experience will aid NASA in preparation for returning samples from Mars through developments experimented during asteroid retrieval. These procedures will ensure that astronauts cannot contaminate the samples with bacteria and protecting organic life on Earth from extraterrestrial microbes.
The Asteroid Redirect Mission is the consummation of the best technology NASA has to offer. The mission will greatly lower the cost of manned space exploration and raise its efficiency. Essentially, this will allow NASA to move quickly on its vision to put humans on Mars. To reach the Red Planet, the ARM program will advance the use of quasi-lunar space to develop and test new-era space exploration technology.
By: Alex Lemieux