OF ASTEROIDS AND ASTROBOTS – Part II


Astronaut/Robonaut EVA

The Augustine committee, for example, found that without both human and robotic missions, “any space program would be hollow.” The following statement was taken from a report from the Congressional Research Service entitled: “The Future of NASA: Space Policy Issues Facing Congress” (January 2010).  This report acknowledges the strong support for robotic explorations, but also clearly supports the logic and value of joint mission profiles that include robotics, human spaceflight, and human spaceflight with astrobots. This latter joint activity is about to take place on the International Space Station with the presence of NASA’s Robonaut 2.

Some advocates for astrobots envision the majority of space exploration missions being accomplished with robots or robot rovers such as those involved with our Mars explorations. As stated above, the strongest logic seems to support individualized mission planning that would include some exclusively robotic missions while others would either be totally human spaceflight missions or a joint mission involving humans and robots.

The significant point is specific mission planning that uses the right human and/or robotic resources. Support for this flexible approach is a policy decision that includes both human spaceflight and robotic spaceflight capabilities in the mission resources pool.  This approach appears to be alive and well considering the coming joint mission to the International Space Station involving astronauts and robonauts.

With the foregoing in mind let’s look at some mission planning considerations for the announced mission to an asteroid.  In this regard, President Obama’s announced schedule of sending humans to an asteroid by 2025 sets a mission planning and development time interval that will be a factor in the following mission considerations. These are:

  1. How much of the mission is solid science and how much of it is a PR “gee whiz” project?  I am not saying the “gee whiz” factor is totally wrong, but it should be only a side benefit to our investigation into threat avoidance and resource potentials of near Earth objects.
  2. Accepting the mission key objectives of threat avoidance analyses and resource assessments, does the mission need human spaceflight? In answering this issue we should include consideration of a robotic mission as a fully acceptable and successful alternative.
  3. If we decide to consider a robotic mission, then there are several key issues that must be considered before a final mission profile is established. These are: (a) mission related design requirements, (b) design, development and test time-frames, (c) successful accomplishment of (a) and (b) before the end of the White House 15 year launch goal (2025), and (d) consideration of a joint astronaut and robonaut team approach including impact on desired mission launch date.
  4. What are the benefits of the asteroid mission being planned as a joint international space exploration project? The White House space plan specifically calls for increased and improved joint missions involving NASA’s foreign space partners.  In considering this, we would need to relax the current 2025 launch target to allow for the necessary multi-national mission planning efforts. Like the ISS program, the idea of an international mission to an asteroid further cements our transition from nation-based space exploration to a global program.
  5. Should this mission also be developed as a joint civil and private venture in which select commercial entities would both contribute to and benefit from the asteroid mission? If this were to be included, would it be useful to have the commercial partners responsible for the resource evaluations vis-a-vis future mining operations? Ideally, if included, the commercial partners would also share in the mission costs.

Lastly, cost is an important issue and there is already a suggested budget for this mission. Would a change to a robotic mission alter that cost? Would the alteration increase, decrease or hold to the planned budget? Additionally, would changing the mission scope to become an international program result in some shared development and program costs that would benefit all the participating nations? These are all serious and critically important considerations and hopefully will be included in the actual mission planning effort.

In Part III of this blog presentation we will offer our view of a specific robotic mission to an asteroid.  Please join us.

CREDITS:

The image above is an artist’s concept of a joint astronaut and robonaut mission involving the assembly of a space telescope.  Courtesy NASA.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Commercial Space Programs, Humankind and Exploration, Robotic Exploration, Scientific Research

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