NASA's Monster Mars Rocket Ahead of Schedule
This artist's concept shows NASA's Space Launch System atop its Florida launch pad.
On April 10, 2013, the White House and NASA released details of the US space agency's budget for the 2014 fiscal year. Included in the budget was a request for over $100 million to begin work on the Asteroid Retrieval and Utilization Mission. The mission would see a robotic spacecraft rendezvous with a small asteroid, which would then steer the space rock to the Earth-moon libration point (EML2) -- a region of gravitational stability beyond the far side of the moon. A manned mission would then meet the "tamed" asteroid to carry out science in-situ. It has been determined that such a mission would optimize the scientific gains while reducing risk and cost. On Wednesday, NASA released an animation detailing the stages of asteroid capture, here are the highlights.
Although its exact configuration has yet to be established, the robotic asteroid capture spacecraft will likely be solar powered and be propelled by an advanced ion drive. Optimistic estimates put a 2017 launch window on the first phase of the mission.
When approaching the asteroid, the spacecraft will jettison the hatch covering the folded asteroid "capture bag." According to the Keck Institute study that the mission is based on, the asteroid will be approximately 7 meters wide and have a mass of 550 tons.
The capture bag will expand like an accordion's bellows in preparation for asteroid capture.
The spacecraft will likely carry out an automated docking maneuver with the asteroid. Seen here, a laser is emitted by the spacecraft, guiding it in.
When fully expanded, and centered, the capture bag will envelop the space rock.
A draw-string-like mechanism will allow the capture bag's opening to be closed around the asteroid, securely mating spacecraft with asteroid.
Once secured, the spacecraft will "de-spin" the asteroid and begin steering it toward the Earth-moon system. This will mark the first time in human history that we have ever changed the trajectory of a natural object in space.
Meanwhile, preparations will be underway for a manned expedition to the captured asteroid. Seen here, NASA's future Space Launch System (SLS) rocket blasts off.
NASA's Orion space capsule will take a team of astronauts to the asteroid's parking orbit at EML2.
The Orion capsule will perform a docking maneuver with the robotic asteroid capture spacecraft after several days transit.
With the asteroid secure, astronauts will have the freedom (and time) to carry out extensive studies during extravehicular activity (EVA).
With the science done and samples collected, the Orion capsule returns to Earth.
The entire mission will culminate in the spashdown of the Orion capsule with astronauts on board. The asteroid will remain parked at EML2 for further study by followup missions to the lunar farside. You can watch the whole video on the NASA website:http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/videogallery/index.html?media_id=161659311
The development of NASA's biggest, most powerful rocket yet is running ahead of schedule and on budget, its primary contractor said Wednesday (April 10).
The towering Space Launch System (SLS) is a 384-foot (117 meters) behemoth intended to launch astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit to deep-space asteroids and Mars. The vehicle is slated to make its first test flight in 2017, when it will launch an unmanned Orion capsule (also in development) beyond the moon. The first manned flight is pegged for 2021.
So far, NASA and The Boeing Co., which has been contracted to build the rocket's core stage, are on track to meet that date, officials said.
"We're on budget, ahead of schedule," John Elbon, Boeing's vice president and general manager of space exploration, told reporters here at the 29th annual National Space Symposium. "There's incredible progress going on with that rocket."
At the end of December 2012 -- five months ahead of schedule -- the team passed a milestone called preliminary design review, which certified that the rocket design meets its requirements within acceptable risk parameters. Its final technical review, called critical design review, is scheduled for 2014.
The booster, in its initial configuration, uses solid rocket boosters based on the space shuttle's design, with an upper stage taken from United Launch Alliance's well-tried Delta 4 rocket.
"The whole theory of it was to use existing hardware so we could design something relatively low-risk and get a capability soon," Elbon said.
Eventually, the SLS will have to be outfitted to carry heavier loads than its initial configuration can lift. It must carry the crew and equipment needed for a mission to Mars -- which will be a multistep, complex operation. What those steps will be, exactly, is yet to be settled by NASA.
"The exploration program hasn’t been crisply defined," Elbon said. "The real focus has been on developing capabilities. I think, personally, it would be helpful if we had a mission that was clearly defined that would allow us to take these capabilities — to tailor them, define them, shape them for that mission."
Yet there's a benefit in developing SLS as a multipurpose vehicle designed to carry out more than a single mission.
"SLS is every mission beyond low-Earth orbit," said John Shannon, Boeing's International Space Station (ISS) program manager. "The fact that NASA has not picked one single mission is irrelevant."
What's key, the executives stressed, is for the United States to stay true to the goal of getting to Mars. That ambition, set by President Barack Obama during his first term, is the guiding force behind the development of SLS and Orion. If a future administration alters that objective, all bets are off.
"Constancy in purpose," is essential, said Mike Raftery, director of ISS utilization and exploration at Boeing. "This is something that happened with ISS. It needs to happen with Mars, too."
More from SPACE.com:
The World's Tallest Rockets: How They Stack Up
Space Launch System: NASA's Giant Rocket Explained (Infographic)
Space Travel Tech: Photos from the 2013 National Space Symposium
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