September 22, 2008

ESA Hopes To Collect Asteroid Composition Samples

European scientists hope a proposed mission to capture pieces of an asteroid will shed light on how our Solar System evolved.

In the so-called Marco Polo mission, scientists and engineers intend to send a spacecraft to a small nearby asteroid to collect dust and rubble that will be studied to determine how the Solar System came into being.

Some speculate the mission could launch sometime in the next decade, in about 2017. Ultimately it is up to the European Space Agency (ESA) to approve the mission.

Satellite makers UK Astrium and OHB in Germany are analyzing data to assess the type of spacecraft architecture that would be needed to carry out the project.

"We'll be looking at the best solution for getting there and back," said UK Astrium's Dr Ralph Cordey.

"We've got to look at all elements of the mission - how we would design the mission, how to design the trajectory to one of a number of possible asteroids, how to optimize that so we use the smallest spacecraft, the least fuel and the smallest rocket."

Asteroids "“ the debris left over from the formation of the Solar System about 4.6 billion years ago "“ could provide scientists with an inside look at how planets like Earth evolved.

In one possible scenario, the Marco Polo would launch on a Soyuz rocket from Europe's Kourou spaceport. Once in space, the craft would begin to map nearby asteroids, noting shape, size, mass, spin and composition. After landing on the chosen asteroid, the craft would be able to collect up to 300g of dust and pebbles in a sealed capsule.

Marco Polo is s being considered under ESA's Cosmic Visions program, and is one of a number of competing ideas in a class of missions that could cost in the region of 300 million euros.

To scientists, an asteroid sample return mission would be of great interest and be a solid piece of evidence in the story of the universe. What's more, it would also help develop the technology needed for the more challenging task of getting down and up from a large planetary body that has a much bigger gravitational pull - such as Mars.

The wrong approach could crush landing legs or even result in the vehicle bouncing straight back off into space, as demonstrated by recent Japanese attempts to take samples off the surface of Asteroid Itokawa.

The U.S. deliberately crash-landed their Near-Shoemaker probe on to Asteroid Eros at the end of the spacecraft's mission in 2001.

They have also sent the Dawn spacecraft to rendezvous with Asteroid Vesta in 2011 before going on to visit Asteroid Ceres in 2015. But these are remote-sensing ventures, not sample return attempts.

Ultimately, it is possible that astronauts could visit an asteroid. The US space agency is currently studying how this might be done; but even if approved, such a mission would not happen for many decades.

Image Courtesy NASA


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