NASA Asking Industry for Ideas for Obtaining Advanced Solar Electric Propulsion-Based Spacecraft

27 October 2015

NASA’s California-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has issued a call to American industry for new ideas on how it could obtain a core advanced solar electric propulsion-based spacecraft to support the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM).

ARRM falls under NASA overall Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) that aims to employ technologies to prepare for an early human exploration mission in deep space to the area around the moon called the cis-lunar space.

The spacecraft will need to be able to demonstrate support of high power solar electric propulsion, with initial solar array power of approximately 50 kilowatts. The robotics capture system planned aboard the pioneering vehicle will be capable of acquiring a 20-ton boulder of up to about 19 feet wide from an asteroid's surface and then returning it to an astronaut-accessible orbit near our moon.

The spacecraft will also need to fit a variety of launch vehicles such as NASA's Space Launch System, or a commercially provided rocket and will need to be ready for launch by the end of 2020.

NASA's ARRM is being prepared to perform a number of technology demonstrations needed for the future journey to Mars and includes using a 20-fold improvement in state-of-the-art deep space solar electric propulsion capability to move and maneuver multi-ton objects. The main goal of the robotic segment of ARM is to acquire a multi-ton boulder from a large asteroid and then redirect it to a crew-accessible orbit around our moon to set the stage for future human and robotic vehicle operations in deep space.

The mission also will provide the first large-scale asteroid samples that will be analyzed for better understanding of the composition and nature of these primordial planetary bodies. The mission will expand NASA's ability to detect and stop space rocks threats.

Another aspect of ARM is to demonstrate cost-effective and efficient technology needed for future human missions to Mars.

"We're eager to hear from American companies on their ideas for a spacecraft design that could accommodate our advanced solar electric propulsion requirements and robotic technologies," says Robert Lightfoot, NASA associate administrator. "We're also interested in what sorts of innovative commercial, international and academic partnerships opportunities might be practical and help reduce overall mission costs while still demonstrating the technologies we need for our journey to Mars."

When it encounters a large asteroid, the spacecraft will demonstrate a "slow-push" planetary defense asteroid deflection technique that uses the gravitational pull of the spacecraft and boulder to attempt to change the course of an asteroid.

Redirecting and "parking" a large asteroid boulder within reach of Earth will also allow an opportunity for enterprises to mine asteroids for precious metals and resources.

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