MIT Tether For Walking On Asteroids

MIT researchers have devised a tether to help astronauts walk across small asteroids on future missions. The tether system (a "circumferential rope") would wrap all the way around the asteroid. This really adds a new dimension to the term "asteroid belt." MIT website wallahs dub it an "asterope.*"

(Asterope MIT asteroid tether system with circumferential rope diagram)

The MIT researchers, Christopher Carr and Ian Garrick-Bethell, anticipate that astronauts will find it difficult to work on the surface of an asteroid, due to the extremely low gravity. An asteroid one kilometer in diameter would have a surface gravity just 1/28000th that of the Earth; an astronaut could literally jump right off the asteroid and not come back down.

Once tethered, however, astronauts could walk across the surface in a more normal manner, and perform physical chores like digging a small hole or pulling objects from the surface more easily.

The idea of wrapping a tether all the way around an asteroid may seem like an extreme solution. However, the loose composition of asteroids could make other strategies, like drilling or attaching a permanent "bolt" or other hardware to the surface, impossible to implement.

The ropes are ideally ribbon shaped, with enough width so that when tightened their force per unit area on the surface does not cause them to cut too deeply into the regolith.

There has been an increase in interest in asteroid science and exploration in the last few years; the Dawn mission will try to fly to Vesta and Ceres, the largest rocks in the solar system. NASA is also studying a manned mission to a Near Earth Object and even the possibility of using an asteroid as a radiation shield. Moving asteroids that will come too close to Earth has also been discussed. A circumferential tether could come in handy in the near future.

Carr and Garrick-Bethell are publishing their work in an upcoming issue of the journal Acta Astronautica.

Via MIT; also, take a look at the paper (Working and walking on small asteroids with circumferential ropes) and find out more about asteroids.

* The only evidence that I can find for the "asterope" name is the filename for the graphic that depicts the tether system on the MIT site. But I like it! [One of the paper's authors, Ian Garrick-Bethell, writing to me in an email, says he doesn't know where the name "asterope" comes from.]

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