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NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission Tests Robotic Capture System With Styrofoam Boulder

Nov 03, 2016 06:25 AM EDT

NASA begins tests for Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) with a mock asteroid.

A prototype of ARM's robotic capture system was tested on a mock asteroid boulder at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. The $1.25 billion robotic mission is slated to launch in 2021 with the goal of collecting an asteroid boulder from space and redirect it to a more stable orbit around the moon where astronauts could explore it and return with samples.

NASA and students from West Virginia University created the asteroid mockup out of rock, Styrofoam, plywood and an aluminum endoskeleton, NASA said in a statement. The mock boulder arrived in four pieces and was assembled inside the center's Robotic Operations Center to help visualize the engagement between the prototype system and the asteroid target.

The mock asteroid will help engineers understand the intricate operations required to collect a multi-ton boulder from an asteroid's surface. The robotic capture system hardware will consist of three space frame legs with foot pads, two seven degrees of freedom arms that have microspine gripper "hands" to grasp onto the boulder.

Using the mockup, engineers in the Robotic Operations Center could use industrial robots, a motion-based platform, and customized algorithms to create simulations of space operations for robotic spacecraft. In the center, engineers could also simulate robotic satellite servicing operations, as well as fine-tune systems and controllers and optimize performance factors for future missions when a robotic spacecraft might be deployed for satellite repair or refueling.

In the future, ARM will be focused on protecting the Earth from an asteroid collision by redirecting asteroids that threaten to hit the planet. At the same time, ARM will demonstrate Mars-level capabilities for future nearby explorations and fly missions with the technologies and operational constraints NASA will encounter en route to the Red Planet.

While ARM is a planetary defense mission, a similar asteroid mission by NASA called OSIRIS-REx focuses on the scientific goal of collecting asteroid samples to be brought back to Earth in 2023 for further testing. OSIRIS-REx launched on Sept. 8 from Cape Canaveral Air Force in Florida to intercept the orbit of near-Earth asteroid Bennu.

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