A manned mission to Mars has always been the biggest goal for NASA. But, the space agency has an even crazier mission planned first. They want to grab a boulder off a near-Earth asteroid and place it into a stable orbit around the moon for exploration by astronauts.

“The Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) will provide an initial demonstration of several spaceflight capabilities we will need to send astronauts deeper into space, and eventually, to Mars,” said NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot. “The option to retrieve a boulder from an asteroid will have a direct impact on planning for future human missions to deep space and begin a new era of spaceflight.”

When is ARM Happening?

NASA doesn’t expect to have a specific asteroid selected until at least 2019. So far, NASA has spotted three candidates for the mission. Itokawa, Bennu and 2008 EV5. Scientists need to know the ins and outs of each asteroid including their size, rotation, shape and precise orbit. Two more asteroids are expected to join these three candidates every year leading up to the mission.

ARM robotic spacecraft

The ARM mission is expected to launch in 2020.

How Will it Work?

The ARM robotic spacecraft will test several capabilities required for deep space human missions. One of these is advanced Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP). This propulsion system harnesses the power of sunlight and converts it to electrical power thanks to solar arrays. The power is then used to propel charged atoms to move a spacecraft. A handy propulsion method for moving large cargo.

It is slower than traditional propulsion, but it saves costs by not needing large amounts of propellant. Cost is one of the biggest hurdles for any Mars mission.

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New trajectory and navigation methods will also be used. This will help put the asteroid in a stable lunar orbit known as distant retrograde orbit. Oh, and don’t worry about the asteroid coming close to Earth. NASA is picking a small enough one that would burn up in our atmosphere if it happened to come towards us.

asteroid reentry

ARM is expected to launch in 2020. It will take six years for the robotic spacecraft to move the asteroid mass into lunar orbit. In the mid-2020s, astronauts aboard NASA’s Orion spacecraft will launch on the agency’s Space Launch System rocket. They will rendezvous with the asteroid and explore it.

Today’s concept is a two-man, 25-day mission. New spacesuits designed for deep space will also be worn by astronauts. Other tests will include new sensor technology and a docking system that will connect Orion to the ARM spacecraft.

Deflecting Asteroids

The ARM mission also gives us another line of defense against near-Earth asteroids. It’s a technique called gravity tractor. A spacecraft in a halo orbit in the right direction around an asteroid can slowly pull the asteroid. The GIF below shows how it would work.

gravity tractor

A manned mission to Mars isn’t expected to happen until the 2030s. But, the 2020s promises to be an exciting time for NASA and the final frontier.

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