NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab was founded by the Caltech faculty. It is a leading center for robotic exploration of the solar system and has been instrumental in major projects such as Cassini-Huygens missions to Saturn, Curiosity missions to Mars, Opportunity (Mars rover) and the Juno spacecraft which is heading for Jupiter right now.
The faculty traces its roots to a California Institute of Technology experiment conducted to gather data about an alcohol-fueled motor in 1936. The project eventually got funding from the United States Army and The first functional rockets were demonstrated to the army in 1941. The project was renamed Jet propulsion Lab in 1943 and has operated as an Army facility under contract from the university till it was eventually transferred to NASA in December 1958.
Engineers who worked at the facility were working on ways to send rockets to space and deploy robots on celestial bodies. They started with Ranger and Surveyor missions to the moon before the Apollo program took off. They also helped pave the way for rockets and rovers on other planets such as Venus, Mars and Mercury. The website features a Mars Atlas.
The facility has been on the lookout for near Earth objects since the late-1990’s. In 1998 the department opened its Near-Earth Object program and has managed to find more than 95% of all asteroids that cross our planet’s orbit around the sun. This observation facility has spotted over 1,000 such objects, although there could be many smaller ones that are harder to find and have not been spotted by the telescopes yet.
Since these asteroids are more than a kilometer long and have the potential to come in close contact with or even collide with Earth, it is essential that we understand them. NASA has recently launched an Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) to help send robotic missions to these near-Earth objects and push them into a stable orbit around the moon instead.
The mission intends to send robotic missions to the asteroid to collect samples of its surface and study its properties. This stage of the mission will be carried out in the 2020’s. Throughout the decade the facility will collect data to try and understand what these asteroids are made of, their speed and velocity as well as their potential for orbit manipulation to see how we can redirect them most effectively.
NASA claims the redirection is necessary not just to prevent a collision with Earth, but also to clear the way for human space missions to planets like Mars in the 2030’s and beyond.
Asteroids are leftover materials that were formed as early as the solar system itself. they have not been assimilated into any of the large bodies in the solar system, which is why they orbit around other objects. Studying these asteroids will help us understand the early formation of the solar system we live in as well as the origins of life on our own planet.
To reduce the costs and risks of this dangerous mission, NASA and the JPL have agreed to collaborate with private companies. Four companies have been chosen to assist with the early stage design work involved in the project. The aerospace companies selected for the initial studies include: Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Littleton, Colorado; Boeing Phantom Works, Huntington Beach, California; Orbital ATK, Dulles, Virginia; and Space Systems/Loral, Palo Alto, California.
The design stage is where these companies will work alongside JPL to formulate the mission and design the ARRM spacecraft bus. The first stage involves planning and designing while the second stage involves manufacture or procurement of the spacebus.
The second stage will also involve implementation of the spacecraft bus. A competition will be held to help select the collaborator for the second phase of development, but at this stage the four companies are working with JPL to design a new breed of spacecraft. This new spacecraft is expected to move 20-times faster with the help of solar-electric propulsion in deep space, carry much larger payloads and retrieve a boulder that could potentially weigh 20 tons from an asteroid in near-Earth orbit.
The areas in focus are deep space travel and asteroid manipulation. Many private companies are looking for ways to capture and mine near-earth asteroids for the rare minerals that could be trapped just below their surface. NASA, on the other hand, wants to improve the way deep space missions are carried out and sees this mission as a chance to showcase and test the technological breakthroughs in space travel over the past few decades.
Either ways, these missions offer a new hope for our species to travel, explore and understand the solar system we live in.