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NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts

Swarm Flyby Gravimetry (Phase II)

Completed Technology Project

Project Introduction

We propose a method for discerning the gravity fields and sub-surface mass distribution of a solar system small body, without requiring dedicated orbiters or landers. In this concept, a spacecraft releases a swarm of small, low-cost probes during a flyby past an asteroid or comet. By tracking those probes, we can estimate the asteroid's gravity field and infer its underlying composition and porosity. This approach offers a diverse measurement set, equivalent to planning and executing many independent and unique flyby encounters of a single spacecraft. The resulting dataset can yield a global model of the body's mass distribution and reveal unique aspects of the body's interior that are otherwise unobservable. This concept offers the possibility of achieving new scientific measurements that extend our understanding of our solar system, benefit human spaceflight, and support planetary defense. It also represents a practical deep space application of the swarm paradigm that is common in other fields, in that the ensemble of deployed probes enables fundamentally new measurement sets. In Phase I we established a basic feasibility of the concept by simulating a series of asteroid encounters and evaluating the available tracking methods. In Phase II, we intend to address the key remaining risks and concerns by increasing the fidelity of our simulations, evaluating important trades, considering other relevant mission contexts, and prototyping and characterizing the dispenser and probes. These activities will be informed by active engagement with mission science and engineering leadership, with the objective of identifying a path forward for implementation. More »

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