NASA’s asteroid-harvesting mission solicits proposals for its robotic spacecraft

Asteroid mining is coming soon to a planet near you: this planet, and in 2021, to be specific. But NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission has lots of work to do before that point. Today the space-faring organization issued an official “request for proposal” from four partners on how they would go about creating the robotic spacecraft that would perform the actual asteroid redirection in question.

This mission is a bit different from OSIRIS-REx, which recently got underway. The idea there is to go to an asteroid, grab a piece and return it to Earth — difficult enough, but it wouldn’t be the first collection of “live” asteroid matter — that was already achieved by the Japanese probe Hayabusa a few years ago (an astonishing achievement, by the way).

ARM’s goal is to select, lift and redirect into a stable, man-accessible Lunar orbit a boulder from a passing asteroid. Astronauts could explore the space rock in this relatively safe environment, bringing back samples to Earth at their leisure whenever stopping by the Moon.

Boeing, Orbital ATK, Lockheed Martin and Space Systems all participated in a “conceptual design phase” in which the basics of the spacecraft were established, but this is the opportunity for each to differentiate itself from the others. The configuration of, say, the sensors with which the ARM craft will scan the surface, or the mechanism of its lander, are still up in the air.

Those four will have about a month to get their proposal together: October 24 is the due date, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory will make its decision some time next year.