NASA’s asteroid capture team briefed Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot yesterday on the two leading strategies, and neither came out the clear winner. Mr. Lightfoot gave the team two more months to sort through the implications and benefits of each. One approach is to rendezvous with a six- to fifteen-foot diameter near Earth asteroid (NEA) and capture it in an inflated bag. The other approach would visit a larger NEA and select the most promising surface boulder to collect. This second approach would cost about $100 million more than the first strategy, but Mr. Lightfoot said it also would demonstrate more technology useful to an eventual Mars mission.
Deep Space Industries is under contract to NASA to advise it on how to enhance the agency’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) so that it attracts industry-funded enhancements. These potential improvements range from precursor missions that scout NEAs to find those with the best resource value, to designing experiments to process material from the returned asteroid to test the creation of rocket propellant, oxygen for life support, and metals for construction habitats and other structures in space. The final Deep Space report will be delivered to NASA next month.
A final decision will come in late February at a Mission Concept Review, along with a decision on the launch date – sometime in mid 2019 or later. Fresh cost estimates for the two approaches also will be completed by then. NASA officials expect ARM to cost about $1.25 billion, not counting the launch vehicle, which could be a Delta Heavy, a Falcon Heavy or a Space Launch System booster.