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.