Indexed on: 17 Jun '16Published on: 16 Jun '16Published in: Acta Astronautica
Near Earth Asteroids are attractive targets for new space missions; firstly, because of their scientific importance, but also because of their impact threat and prospective resources. The asteroid retrieval mission concept has thus arisen as a synergistic approach to tackle these three facets of interest in one single mission. This paper reviews the methodology used by the authors (2013) in a previous search for objects that could be transported from accessible heliocentric orbits into the Earth's neighbourhood at affordable costs (or Easily Retrievable Objects, a.k.a. EROs). This methodology consisted of a heuristic pruning and an impulsive manoeuvre trajectory optimisation. Low thrust propulsion on the other hand clearly enables the transportation of much larger objects due to its much higher specific impulse. Hence, in this paper, low thrust retrieval transfers are sought using impulsive trajectories as first guesses to solve the optimal control problem. GPOPS-II is used to transcribe the continuous-time optimal control problem to a nonlinear programming problem (NLP). The latter is solved by IPOPT, an open source software package for large-scale NLPs. Finally, a natural continuation procedure that increases the asteroid mass allows to find out the largest objects that could be retrieved from a given asteroid orbit. If this retrievable mass is larger than the actual mass of the asteroid, the asteroid retrieval mission for this particular object is said to be feasible. The paper concludes with an updated list of 17 EROs, as of April 2016, with their maximum retrievable masses by means of low thrust propulsion. This ranges from 2,000 t for the easiest object to be retrieved to 300 t for the least accessible of them.