NASA has a wild idea to weigh asteroids with a swarm of mini probes

Asteroids like this one, named Ida, it can be difficult to weigh in the space.


Asteroids are everywhere around us in space, but they are very difficult to weigh, that makes it harder to know how they behave.

So, NASA is considering a new spacecraft that would be a new approach to the problem report miniature probes to skim past small asteroids. That is the idea behind OpGrav, a project that NASA and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory testing. The asteroid flyby project is explained in a new video from NASA released Aug. 10 on YouTube.

Here is how it would work: The main spacecraft would be the approach of a small asteroid that scientists want to study in more detail. While the spacecraft is still a few hours away, would be releasing a collection of small spheres in the direction of the asteroid.

The flock of probes would be able to safely fly closer to the asteroid than the spacecraft itself. That means that the probes would be affected by the gravity of the asteroid, which would each draw a little bit from the price. The main spacecraft would then follow, where individual probes against the background of stars around them.

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These measurements would allow scientists to work backward to calculate the asteroid’s mass and create a map of where exactly the mass within the asteroid. At the same time, the spacecraft could make its own observations of the asteroid to supplement data from the sensors.

The method would not be perfect; the smaller the asteroid, the more important it would be for the spacecraft to aim the herd. But with larger asteroids, the technique should be capable of measuring of the asteroids within 1 percent of their actual mass, according to a joint statement about the project.

However, it is still too early to say when this project is ready to fly, the statement added.

The OpGrav asteroid concept was proposed by JHUAPL researcher Justin Atchison by the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program, which funds research in the high-risk, high-yield, space-exploration concepts. The OpGrav concept received two rounds of NIAC funding between 2014 and 2015.

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