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Assessment on the feasibility of future shepherding of asteroid resources

Sanchez Cuartielles, Joan-Pau and McInnes, Colin (2012) Assessment on the feasibility of future shepherding of asteroid resources. Acta Astronautica, 73. pp. 49-66. ISSN 0094-5765

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Abstract

Most plausible futures for space exploration and exploitation require a large mass in Earth orbit. Delivering this mass requires overcoming the Earth’s natural gravity well, which imposes a distinct obstacle to any future space venture. An alternative solution is to search for more accessible resources elsewhere. In particular, this paper examines the possibility of future utilisation of near Earth asteroid resources. The accessibility of asteroid material can be estimated by analysing the volume of Keplerian orbital element space from which Earth can be reached under a certain energy threshold and then by mapping this analysis onto an existing statistical near Earth objects (NEO) model. Earth is reached through orbital transfers defined by a series of impulsive manoeuvres and computed using the patched-conic approximation. The NEO model allows an estimation of the probability of finding an object that could be transferred with a given Δv budget. For the first time, a resource map provides a realistic assessment of the mass of material resources in near Earth space as a function of energy investment. The results show that there is a considerable mass of resources that can be accessed and exploited at relatively low levels of energy. More importantly, asteroid resources can be accessed with an entire spectrum of levels of energy, unlike other more massive bodies such as the Earth or Moon, which require a minimum energy threshold implicit in their gravity well. With this resource map, the total change of velocity required to capture an asteroid, or transfer its resources to Earth, can be estimated as a function of object size. Thus, realistic examples of asteroid resource utilisation can be provided.