Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Plymouth Rock - Asteroids here we Come

Lockheed Martin this week pitched a Manned Asteroid mission utilizing two linked Orion Spacecraft currently being developed by the company. Although LM admits asteroid mission planning is 100% internally funded, many within NASA have expressed an interest in the Plymouth Rock presentation. The basics:

  • Two linked Orions
  • 6 month round trip
  • 100kg sample return
  • 3 Astronauts
  • No new tech required
  • With funding could make the trip within 10 years
  • Several asteroids being considered for the 2015-2030 time frame from small to very large
The proposal is intriguing. A space entrepreneur has only has to read Mining the Sky to salivate over the potential of extraterrestrial resources available to us on asteroids. But in the near term, what I am most interested in as an entrepreneur is Lockheed’s plan to leave one of the two Orions in orbit after the manned asteroid mission - able to reused over multiple trips. This “stretch” Orion would forgo the heat shield in favor of modifications making it more conducive to long duration space flight. One Orion capsule (the one with a heat shield) would reenter with Crew and samples after each mission. The stretch Orion would remain in orbit ready for future asteroid missions or to serve as a long duration space lab in LEO.

This trend towards reusability is important and I am glad to see it promoted for three reasons:
  1. Philosophical Logic: The debate over “reuse” or “launch new” continues to rage (or at least simmer). For LM to recommend a solution that contains such a large reusable component, this means the largest defense contractor on the planet has given the nod toward near-term technologies like depots and space tugs as well. Although not mentioned in the Plymouth Rock presentation, such technologies like propellant depots and space tugs would be needed in order to prepare the stretch Orion for a follow-on mission. We have already seen companies like ULA and Boeing make recommendations for depots and tugs, but to date we have not seen much from Lockheed Martin on the subject.
  2. Altruistic Logic: For humans to become truly space faring, cost minimization of permanent space logistics must become more important than capability maximization. Reusable components are essential to create sustainable space logistics solutions.
  3. Profit Logic: A clever risk-tolerant company could make a lot of money with a reusable man-rated asset in orbit (especially if LM retains ownership after the primary mission with NASA concludes).
Here are a few secondary missions for a stretch Orion (with profit potential):
  • Become a Lunar/Mars cycler ferrying missions to and from the moon or Mars (the stretch Orion will already be capable of remote rendezvous and docking)
  • Analyze the earth using the same instruments used to analyze Asteroidal surfaces and sell the data to the science community
  • Sell experiment space on-board as a long-term space lab (much less vibration than on the ISS) – dock with ISS to take on experiments, but fly remotely without crew for long durations.
  • Fly to the moon: Commercial Lunar fly by’s (One Stretch Orion and one Dragon or Soyuz attached)
How would you make money from a stretch Orion?


  1. All or most of the stretch Orion's propellant would be used up getting into position next to the asteroid. No gas for the return trip :(

    From the whitepaper:
    Upon approach to the target asteroid, the Supplemental Orion would use its Service module propulsion system to match velocity with the asteroid. After several days exploring the asteroid, the astronauts would jettison the now-empty Supplemental Orion and use the Primary Orion’s propulsion system to return to Earth.

  2. Agreed not all components retained, definitely need for refurbishing in LEO (tugs/depots).

    Also agree that the base mission plan of two standard Orions leave one Orion at the Asteroid, but on page 19 of the Plymouth Rock presentation, it speaks of the Deep Space “Stretch” variant:

    “assuming that the crew module is retained during the return trip and only the Service Module is jettisoned from the Supplemental Orion."

    Also, in the MSNBC article quoted above, Astronaut Thomas Jones is quoted of saying: "An attractive change for NASA between the lunar architecture and proposed NEO missions is that most of this cruise vehicle could be re-used."

    So, interesting. I will have to read the Plymouth Rock presentation again to get a better feel of how much would be left for reuse – again back to the “reuse” or “launch new” debate.

  3. No new tech may be required, but that unfortunately is a not the same as saying no development is required. At a minimum these items would need to be developed:

    -- Orion capsule (partially done)
    -- Earth departure stage (perhaps this could be multiple clustered Centaur upper stages assembled in orbit)
    -- Cryogenic propellant depot to fuel or top off the earth departure stage (perhaps we could just accept a lot of boil-off)

    The margins on this mission look doable, but pretty small. The duration is particularly worrisome. It would be great if some form of high Isp propulsion could be used to speed this up.

  4. Yes – more development – which is why this will probably still take 10 years to put together.

    The radiation issue for the crew is still a huge worry. Some interesting tech concepts out there to explore these issues
    – magnetic fields much smaller than previously imagined,
    - the always popular water bladders, etc.

    I hope there is some money left over in this NASA budget to do this good work…

  5. Whether there is money left over depends on whether this is done on a cost plus basis or whether NASA requires Lockheed to give a fixed bid.