Cash-strapped NASA scraps mission to bring home an asteroid

Less than a month after President Trump declared: “American footprints on distant worlds are not too big a dream,” NASA has been forced to scrap a deep space mission that would have advanced that ambition.

Asteroid Redirect Mission
An artist’s impression shows how astronauts would have visited the chunk of space rock to retrieve a sample and bring it to Earth. Image credit: NASA

The space agency has been advised that funding next year will remain at the reduced levels seen in recent years. It has therefore cancelled its Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) which would have captured a minor planet for astronauts to explore.

ARM was due to launch a robotic spacecraft at the end of the current decade to visit a large near-Earth asteroid – that is to say one that has an orbit that brings it close to our own planet.

Once there, to would have used a robotic arm to grab a large chunk of the asteroid and send it to a new orbit around the Moon.

Then in the 2020s, astronauts were going to fly aboard NASA’s new Orion spacecraft to visit the Moon’s new natural satellite, explore it and bring samples back to Earth. Astronauts had already been rehearsing for such a mission.

Of the thousands of near-Earth asteroids known, more than 1,000 have been found since NASA began its own search for a suitable candidate in 2013. Four were judged to be suitable candidates for ARM.

Such a mission would not only have given scientists precious fragments of pristine material from the early Solar System to study, helping us to learn how we came to be.

It would also have tested techniques that could help NASA deflect any deadly asteroids discovered in future on a collision course with Earth to save us from the sort of disaster that wiped out the dinosaurs.

What’s more, NASA saw the mission as important because it would greatly advance preparations for a crewed mission to Mars in the 2030s by testing capabilities for long spaceflights far from home.

Announcing the axing of ARM today, NASA acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot said in a statement: “We remain committed to the next human missions to deep space, but we will not pursue the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) with this budget.

“This doesn’t mean, however, that the hard work of the teams already working on ARM will be lost. We will continue the solar electric propulsion efforts benefitting from those developments for future in space transportation initiatives. I have had personal involvement with this team and their progress for the past few years, and am I extremely proud of their efforts to advance this mission.”

Despite the cuts, Lightfoot added: “The budget supports our continued leadership in commercial space, which has demonstrated success through multiple cargo resupply missions to the International Space Station, and is on target to begin launches of astronauts from U.S. soil in the near future.

“The budget also bolsters our ongoing work to send humans deeper into space and the technologies that will require.”

He concluded: “This is a positive budget overall for NASA. I want to reiterate that we are committed to NASA’s core mission of exploration – in all the ways we carry that out.

“As with any budget, we have greater aspirations than we have means, but this blueprint provides us with considerable resources to carry out our mission, and I know we will make this nation proud.”

How the Asteroid Redirect Mission would have operated

Commercial companies are planning their own missions to mine asteroids and plunder them for their precious resources, including water to make rocket fuel. Even a small asteroid could be worth billions of dollars for the minerals it contains.

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By Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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