Drop Your Thesis! 2018 results: 4.74 seconds of microgravity conditions to enable future cubesat landings on asteroids

F Gautier and E Sitepu and C Le Blay and G Kersey and JP Sanchez, ACTA ASTRONAUTICA, 176, 139-155 (2020).

DOI: 10.1016/j.actaastro.2020.06.003

Space exploration has seen a growing number of asteroid missions being launched; mostly due to their scientific interest, but also on account of the potential impact threat and prospective valuable resources of their targets. Landing safely on the surface of an asteroid is one of the main technical challenges before obtaining in-situ observations and ground-truth data. Given the asteroid's extremely weak gravitational field, purely ballistic descent trajectories become a suitable option to reach its surface. However, this is still a very risky operation due to the limited knowledge of the object's physical characteristics. Hence, deploying a small lander is often a more conservative option than endangering the mothercraft itself, and thus a simple CubeSat may provide a low cost solution for asteroid exploration. However, for a CubeSat system to be able to safely land on the surface of an asteroid, a sufficient dissipation of energy must naturally occur at touchdown, or else the resultant bouncing may lead to high uncertainties on the final landing location, or even yield an escape trajectory. This paper describes the result of ESA Academy's Drop Your Thesis! 2018 (DYT2018) programme. DYT2018 carried out a microgravity experiment, led by Land3U team from the Astronautics and Space Engineering Course at Cranfield University, to provide additional data on the engineering constraints relevant to land a CubeSat on the surface of an asteroid. The experiment was performed in ZARM's Drop Tower, located in Bremen, during two Drop campaigns in November 2018 and February 2019. A total of 7 drops were completed, each providing 4.74 s of microgravity under vacuum environment. The experiment measured the coefficient of restitution of a 1U mockup, equipped with a 4-kg mass, touching down on the simulated asteroid surface with an average velocity of 150 mm/s. Three successful drops measured a coefficient of restitution of 0.26 +/- 0.03.

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