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Proposal To Use Lasers To Analyze Asteroids

A novel concept for determining the composition of distant asteroids has been proposed to NASA by Gary Hughes of California Polytechnic State University.

I say that it is a "novel concept" because it was suggested almost sixty years ago by science fiction writer EC Tubb.

But let's take a look at the current proposal first.


(At 27':00' - Molecular Composition Analysis of Distant Targets)

We propose a system capable of probing the molecular composition of cold solar system targets such as asteroids, comets, planets and moons from a distant vantage. Our concept utilizes a directed energy beam to vaporize or sublimate a spot on a distant target, such as from a spacecraft near the object. With sufficient flux, our published results indicate that the spot temperature rises rapidly, and evaporation of materials on the target surface occurs (Hughes et al., 2015; Lubin and Hughes, 2015; Lubin et al., 2014).

The melted spot serves as a high-temperature blackbody source, and ejected material creates a molecular plume in front of the spot. Molecular and atomic absorption of the blackbody radiation occurs within the ejected plume. Bulk composition of the surface material is investigated by using a spectrometer to view the heated spot through the ejected material. We envision a spacecraft that could be sent to probe the composition of a target asteroid, comet or other planetary body while orbiting the targeted object. The spacecraft would be equipped with an array of lasers and a spectrometer, powered by photovoltaics. Spatial composition maps could be created by scanning the directed energy beam across the surface.

Applying the laser beam to a single spot continuously produces a borehole, and shallow sub-surface composition profiling is also possible. Our initial simulations of laser heating, plume opacity, material absorption profiles and spectral detectivity show promise for molecular composition analysis. Such a system has compelling potential benefit for solar system exploration by establishing the capability to directly interrogate the bulk composition of objects from a distant vantage. We propose to develop models, execute preliminary feasibility analysis, and specify a spacecraft system architecture for a hypothetical mission that seeks to perform surface molecular composition analysis and mapping of a near-earth asteroid (NEA) while the craft orbits the asteroid.

SF writer Edwin Charles Tubb wrote about a similar strategy for determining the composition of asteroids in detail in his 1958 novel The Mechanical Monarch:

Fire streaked in a thin line from the muzzle of a cannon-like tube mounted beneath the viewing instruments and a tiny, rocket-powered projectile, drove towards the mysterious bulk. It hit, exploding into a cloud of incandescent vapour, and Wendis stared thoughtfully at the brilliant lines on the spectroscope screen.

"... the spectro shows traces of iron, some copper, a little tungsten and a lot of beryllium. Looks unnatural somehow, too much like an alloy."
(Read more about the Impactor Determines Composition)

Via Molecular Composition Analysis of Distant Targets (NASA).

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 8/29/2016)

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