The nano fleet
A drawing of the concept. Credit: Finnish Meteorological Institute
The Finnish Meteorological Institute has unveiled research that suggests a fleet of tiny spacecraft could visit up to 300 asteroids in three years.
According to the institute, the concept, known as the Asteroid Touring Nanosat Fleet, is powered by electric solar wind sails (E-sails). Each spacecraft would include equipment to take images and collect data, before returning to Earth.
‘Asteroids are very diverse and, to date, we’ve only seen a small number at close range,’ explained Dr Pekka Janhunen, researcher at the Finnish Meteorological Institute. ‘To understand them better, we need to study a large number in situ. The only way to do this affordably is by using small spacecraft.
‘The nanosats could gather a great deal of information about the asteroids they encounter during their tour, including the overall size and shape, whether there are craters on the surface or dust, whether there are any moons, and whether the asteroids are primitive bodies or a rubble pile.’
The idea is for nanosats – of which there would be 50 – to fly near their target asteroids at a range of around 1,000 kilometres, with each one carrying a telescope capable of imaging the surface of asteroids.
Janhunen, who presented the concept at the European Planetary Science Congress 2017 in Riga on 19 September, added that the cost of a nano fleet could be far less than that of a conventional mission.
‘This mission architecture, using a fleet of nanosats and innovative propulsion, would reduce the cost to just a few hundred thousand Euros per asteroid. Yet the value of the science gathered would be immense,’ he said.