As NASA explores the possibility of sending astronauts to an asteroid, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are working on a tethering system that could help explorers with the prospect of walking on a surface without much sticking power.
Gravity is almost nonexistent on an asteroid, which can be as small as a speck of dust or as big as tens of miles in diameter. Two MIT researchers have proposed the idea of a lightweight rope that could be tied around a small asteroid--one that's larger than a few kilometers--deployed most likely with the use of a remote-controlled rocket. Once looped around the asteroid, the tether could anchor an astronaut and allow him or her to walk on the surface without floating away. The astronauts could also collect samples of the rock or test equipment for a future mission to Mars.
Christopher Carr, a postdoctoral associate in MIT's Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, and his colleague, grad student Ian Garrick-Bethell, will describe their system in an upcoming issue of the journal Acta Astronautica.
"This is an innovative approach to a task nobody has spent much time thinking about," Jeffrey Hoffman, an MIT professor of aeronautics and astronautics who sponsored the paper, said in a statement Tuesday.
"NASA has taken a brief look at a human visit to a Near Earth Object, and it may be something we can do long before going to Mars," Hoffman added. "Clever ideas will be necessary to allow people to do useful work near objects on which you cannot 'land,' but only 'dock.'"