News & Current Affairs

September 19, 2008

Europe plans asteroid sample grab

Europe plans asteroid sample grab

British scientists and engineers are working on a potential new mission to bring back material from an asteroid.

The European Space Agency (Esa) mission, which could launch in the next decade, would be designed to learn more about how our Solar System evolved.

The plan is to select a small asteroid – less than 1km across – near Earth and send a spacecraft there to drill for dust and rubble for analysis.

Mission plans are being worked on at EADS Astrium, in Stevenage, Herts.

A final decision on whether to approve the mission – known as Marco Polo – will be made in a few years’ time. The mission would launch towards the end of the next decade.

Asteroids are debris left over from the formation of the Solar System about 4.6 billion years ago.

Studying their pristine material should provide new insights into the ingredients of the early Solar System and how planets like Earth evolved.

“We’ll be looking at the best solution for getting there and back,” Astrium’s Dr Ralph Cordey told News.

“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.”

Marco Polo (EADS Astrium)

Marco Polo would map the asteroid as well as grabbing a sample

Esa has an exploration roadmap for the missions it wishes to conduct in the coming years.

One of its major goals is a Mars sample return mission – a mission to bring back pieces of Martian rock for study in Earth laboratories, where the full panoply of modern analytical technologies can be deployed.

An asteroid sample return mission would have huge scientific merit in its own right but 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.

Not that getting down on to a small, low-gravity body is easy. The wrong approach could crush landing legs or even result in the vehicle bouncing straight back off into space.

Such problems were amply demonstrated by the recent Japanese attempts to grab samples off the surface of an asteroid.

It is still not clear whether the Hayabusa spacecraft managed to capture any material and the probe’s return to Earth is still haunted by uncertainty.

The Americans landed on an asteroid with their Near-Shoemaker probe 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.

There is even feasibility work going on in the US space agency to look at how astronauts could be sent on an asteroid mission one day.

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