When an asteroid packed with about $5 trillion worth of platinum zoomed past Earth this month scientists were ready, capturing the space rock on radar as it sailed safely by our planet.
A paper analyses the potential of the electric solar wind sail for solar system space missions. Applications studied include fly-by missions to terrestrial planets (Venus, Mars and Phobos, Mercury) and asteroids, missions based on non-Keplerian orbits (orbits that can be maintained only by applying continuous propulsive force), one-way boosting to outer solar system, off-Lagrange point space weather forecasting and low-cost impactor probes for added science value to other missions. We also discuss the generic idea of data clippers (returning large volumes of high resolution scientific data from distant targets packed in memory chips) and possible exploitation of asteroid resources. Possible orbits were estimated by orbit calculations assuming circular and coplanar orbits for planets. Some particular challenge areas requiring further research work and related to some more ambitious mission scenarios are also identified and discussed.
What seemed to be rock-solid assumptions about the nature of small asteroids may end in rubble or even a cloud of dust. New findings suggest small asteroids can be a flying cluster of rocks or a cloud of dust with a solid rock at its nucleus.