Monthly Archives: February 2015


Providing a much larger sample quantity to work with than other existing or proposed missions.

While scientists may be happy spending $800 million to return 60 grams of material from an asteroid (Osiris-Rex) and can likely tease out all sorts of information from that two tablespoons’ worth of material, ISRU development needs a lot more material to work with. Even the smallest of concepts I’ve seen for Option B (in which a robotic spacecraft would grab a boulder from an asteroid and move it into lunar orbit) would bring back tens of metric tons of material, both rocky and regolith, which should be plenty of material to work with for ISRU development.

I think some accounting needs to be done on the relative mission cost for the ARM versus the Osiris-Rex sample return, but on the face of it, this makes sense. This concept issues that of issue #2, insomuch that the real advantage is the local nature of the retrieved asteroid. It is hard to do real, meaty research on ISRU with very small samples, as much of ISRU’s promise is in making serviceable products and refined base material in macro quantities. That means not only looking at an extremely rare sample under a microscope or measuring its composition, but really developing space-based refining that boils off oxygen, and water, and other chemicals from the soil, and being able to build structures and machines from the orbiting ore.

That accounting is something that I think I will look into to validate my position here, but I think we’d find a cost and schedule savings by pulling off the one big deep space retrieval, instead of going far distances over and over to come home with tiny, impractical amounts of material. It’s like going to the hardware store for a nail, then back again for a board, then back for paint, then a hammer, a paintbrush…

Reasons to ARM Wrestle – Item 2

Providing an ideal testbed for asteroid in situ resource utilization (ISRU) development



Many people see asteroids as the premier source of vast quantities of off-world resources. But while there is no shortage of low-technology-readiness-level concepts for how to extract resources from asteroids, actually testing those out isn’t going to be easy. I think testing will be much easier when you have the ability to send people and robots, when you’re close enough to Earth that teleoperation of robotics is a viable option, when you have frequent repeat visit opportunities where you can try new approaches, and when you can do your testing in a microgravity or near-microgravity environment, like you would have at an asteroid. Prospective asteroid miners like Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources probably wouldn’t complain about having one or more easy-to-access testbeds to work with.

If I understand this correctly, the chief advantage discussed in this item of the ARM mission is that we can bring back that first asteroid to a location close enough to reliably revisit it to test ISRU techniques. I think this is an excellent consideration for the early years of asteroid resource exploitation.

Why not use a now “localized” asteroidal body as a testbed for ISRU trial-and-error technology development? It is certainly better than using trial-and-error on fairly long manned missions to asteroids, it would reduce risks considerably. This is a similar rationale as has been advocated by Moon-before-Mars development, where living accommodations and travel considerations can be normalized in a location that is relatively close to Earth. We could do a lot of shakedown cruises for long-distant manned survey spacecraft. The needed waystation habitat on the ARM asteroid would provide practical experience in developing and improving the long-to-permanent-duration habitats we will require to colonize and explore our system neighbors. The trip recycling time for launching new missions will be much shorter for reaching a site in Earth orbit than heading out to other bodies orbiting Sol, as well. This brings down a great deal of risk per mission flown, and also allows more flights to the testbed site in a given period of time.

Of course, it can’t be that way forever, or the In-Situ character of ISRU is meaningless. For proper colonization of this solar system, we’ll need to be able to really live off of the land, and ARM only opens the door. Real ISRU keeps it propped open.

Reasons to ARM Wrestle – Item 1

Jonathan Goff’s first point in reasons why NASA ARM missions may be a good thing:

    Adding a new, even more accessible “moon” to the Earth-moon system.

A lot of people fixate on the fact that we’re going to spend all of this money for a couple of astronauts to go out to a rock in lunar orbit, climb over it for a few days, and bring some samples back. What they conveniently ignore is that more than 99.5 percent of the material brought back to the Earth-moon system will still be there, orbiting the moon for the next several hundred years, in a fashion that is easily revisitable for a long time.

See more at Goff’s original article.

That is something that most naysayers like to start with, the initial cost-vs-benefit. Certainly, if all we did was go to an asteroid and take a stroll, never to return, that would be a low value for the funds spent. I think that’s a strawman argument, or could be made into one by how we proceed after capturing the space rock and hauling it to lunar orbit. Given the abrupt end of Apollo, the truncated capabilities of Shuttle versus what was promised in the 1970’s, and any number of other stillborn efforts over the years, you can’t blame people for being cynical. What’s to say that we have a grand plan for asteroid mining that gets us one ARM flight, or maybe two, and then we distract ourselves and don’t go any further? The thing is, we could do that model of halting exploration again and again, the destination doesn’t really matter. So, what to do about it?

You have to do what Goff suggests – you plan your work and work your plan. Yes, go make that first historic manned asteroid landing and sample return mission, it is an exciting prospect. It would be farther than we’ve been with humans, and the materials returned would be fascinating from a geological and mineral assay perspective. It would also be a pointed and irrefutable demonstration that manned spaceflight was back, and in a big way. But there has to be more. Flags and footprints are showy and energizing for a time, but if that’s all there is to it, then why do it? For most of us in the space industry, we see a vision where space-based resources are the future, and crave progress towards such exploitation. We want to digest the asteroids and metabolize them into the technological muscle, sinew, and bone of our species’ spacefaring body. That needs to be made clear.

Basically, I think it should be openly acknowledged that we have run to Apolloesque flags-and-footprints rationales in the past, and the mission planners, and the spokesmen for the mission, and anyone involved on any level need to be very clear that the plan is not more of the same. No more sprinting to a dead end, then starting over. The architecture of the mission needs to be concretely understood as being directed to exploitation of the exploration, not exploration for exploration’s sake. It has to be understood that ARM is a big step that leads to the even bigger steps we need to make into extraterrestrial space.

Good Thoughts on ARM Wrestling

One of the subjects near and dear to my heart is the avoidance of Earthly extinction via asteroid or cometary impact. We should be working diligently to get off this planet and spreading ourselves around, and we are, though at an excruciatingly slow pace. It would be so much better to not be a single target for some wayward rock to take us out. The sooner, the better.

Another issue of great importance to me, which serves the first, is the exploitation of those same asteroids to build up whatever toeholds we establish off-planet. Again, sooner the better.

Jonathan Goff has written a concise set of ten reasons why the NASA-developed Asteroid Retrieval Mission could be very worthwhile in addressing the above. It may not be the perfect mission, and certainly not the most economical, but it is miles ahead of having no mission. You can read Mr. Goff’s work here:

Just to start, I want to list his points here, and over the next several days, I’m going to discuss each of them one by one.

1. Adding a new, even more accessible “moon” to the Earth-moon system.

2. Providing an ideal testbed for asteroid in situ resource utilization (ISRU) development.

3. Providing a much larger sample quantity to work with than other existing or proposed missions.

4. Providing a good way of testing out a man-tended deep-space habitat.

5. Demonstrating large-scale solar electric propulsion (SEP) systems.

6. Demonstrating planetary defense techniques.

7. Developing technologies for a Phobos/Deimos large sample return.

8. Providing the beginnings of a lunar gateway.

9. Providing more experience with on-asteroid operations.

10. Leaving something permanent.

I’d encourage everyone interested in the ARM wrestling match over the validity of this mission to read Mr. Goff’s article.