Mobility and science operations on an asteroid using a hopping small spacecraft on stilts

Himangshu Kalita, Stephen Schwartz, Erik Asphaug, Jekan Thangavelautham

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution

1 Scopus citations


There are thousands of asteroids in near-Earth space and millions in the Main Belt. They are diverse in physical properties and composition and are time capsules of the early solar system. This makes them strategic locations for planetary science, resource mining, planetary defense/security and as interplanetary depots and communication relays. Landing on a small asteroid and manipulating its surface materials remains a major unsolved challenge fraught with high risk. The asteroid surface may contain everything from hard boulders to soft regolith loosely held by cohesion and very low-gravity. Upcoming missions Hayabusa II and OSIRIS-REx will perform touch and go operations to mitigate the risks of 'landing' on an asteroid. This limits the contact time and requires fuel expenditure for hovering. An important unknown is the problem of getting stuck or making a hard impact with the surface. The Spacecraft Penetrator for Increasing Knowledge of NEOs (SPIKE) mission concept will utilize a small-satellite bus that is propelled using a xenon-fueled ion engine and will contain an extendable, low-mass, high-strength boom with a tip containing force-moment sensors. SPIKE will enable contact with the asteroid surface, where it will perform detailed regolith analysis and seismology as well as penetrometry, while keeping the main spacecraft bus at a safe distance. Using one or more long stilts frees the spacecraft from having to hover above the asteroid and thus substantially reduces or eliminates fuel use when doing science operations. This enables much longer missions that include a series of hops to multiple locations on the smallbody surface. We consider a one-legged system, modelled as an inverted pendulum, where the balanced weight is only 10-100 mN. The objective is to balance the spacecraft upon the boom-tip touching the surface. Furthermore, the spacecraft will disengage with the asteroid and hop to another location. The reaction times in the milligravity environment of a km-sized asteroid are much less stringent than the inverted pendulum task on Earth. However, there remain uncertainties with the asteroid surface material, hardness and overall risk posture on the mission. Using this proposed design, we present a preliminary landing system and analyze the implications of GNC on science operations. The proposed spacecraft design and controls approach is a major departure from conventional spacecraft with amphibious capabilities of a lander and flyby vehicle packaged in one.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationGuidance, navigation, and control, 2018
EditorsCheryl A. H. Walker
PublisherUnivelt Inc.
Number of pages13
ISBN (Print)9780877036494
StatePublished - 2018
Event41st Annual AAS Rocky Mountain Section Guidance and Control Conference, 2018 - Breckenridge, United States
Duration: Feb 1 2018Feb 7 2018

Publication series

NameAdvances in the Astronautical Sciences
ISSN (Print)0065-3438


Conference41st Annual AAS Rocky Mountain Section Guidance and Control Conference, 2018
Country/TerritoryUnited States

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Aerospace Engineering
  • Space and Planetary Science


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