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NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts

The Regolith Biters: A Divide-And-Conquer Architecture for Sample Return Missions

Completed Technology Project

Project Introduction

Asteroid Sample Return mission architecture study, with a flyby motership releasing small sample takers, called Regolith Biters (RBs). After flyby, the RBs would rendezvous with the mothership to return to Earth.

A spacecraft carrying a number of Regolith Biters (RBs) would travel to the vicinity of a small body. From a favorable vantage point, and while remaining within a safe distance in a non-colliding trajectory, it would release the RBs towards the target body. Upon encountering the body, they would bite the regolith (thus retaining a sample), and eject back to orbit. The spacecraft, being endowed with appropriate navigation and tracking capabilities, would rendezvous with and collect those RBs within its reach, and bring them back to Earth. Separating the navigation and sampling concerns removes the need for proximity operations with the small body--the stage in current architectures that carries the most challenges and risks. Eliminating the need for proximity operations brings back to the discussion the exploration of exciting prospects, like highly active comets, fast-rotating bodies, and binary systems. Distributing the sampling problem among a collective of agents provides the opportunity to sample multiple regions in a single mission. It also provides robustness to various environmental conditions, and may enable the distributed, in situ characterization of the body. In the search for reliability, current architectures rely on complexity: an elaborate system should succeed at once. We rely on numbers: a given agent may fail at any stage, but success is attained by the collective.

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