Past blog posts of mine have described many aspects of the expansion of human civilization into space.
- Colonizing the Solar System
- Our First Colonies in Space
- Life in an Asteroid
- Population Unlimited (resource limits of comets)
- Our homes, the Comets
- Next Steps in Colonizing the Solar System
- Near-future Space Industries
- Animals in Space (both pets and food animals)
Today I'd like to focus on the orbital mechanics of capturing an asteroid, specifically 99942 Apophis (aka 2004 MN4).
Apophis is the near-earth asteroid that made the headlines in 2004 because of it's feared potential impact on Earth on Friday, April 13, 2029. Additional observations revealed that Apophis will miss by a hair (passing closer to earth than our geosynchronous satellites), but its orbit will be changed by that close approach such that there is a small chance of an Earth impact on April 15, 2036.
Apophis is a small asteroid, only about 300 meters in diameter (approximately 1,000 feet). This is too small to create an ELE (Extinction Level Event, to borrow a phrase from the movie Deep Impact), but it could devastate an area the size of Connecticut, or strike the ocean creating tsunamis that would kill millions of people and destroy trillions of dollars worth of property. Note that if we do nothing, Apophis will almost certainly strike the Earth some day, although perhaps not for thousands of years. We must take steps to prevent that catastrophe.
Luckily, one method of preventing a future Earth impact is to place the asteroid into Earth orbit, from which a future Earth impact is impossible. The near-Earth pass will result in a gravitational slingshot, changing its orbit.
As it passes near us in 2029, Apophis will be moving approximately 5 km/s slower than the Earth in its orbit around the sun, dropping in toward the orbit of Venus (and ignoring, for the moment, the additional speed it will gain dropping into our gravity well). If we do nothing, the near-miss will speed up Apophis by a few km/s, turning it from an Aten Asteroid (a near-Earth asteroid whose orbit is primarily inside of the Earth's) into an Apollo Asteroid (one whose orbit is close to the Earth's orbit, at least on average).
My own rough calculations indicate that if we speed up Apophis by a relatively small amount, such that it passes even closer to the Earth, then it will gain even more speed from its slingshot around our planet. A deflection into an orbit nearly co-circular with the Earth's will also speed it up to approximately Earth's orbital speed (a 5 km/s velocity increase is needed--well within the range of possibilities). Apophis only needs to reach closest approach about 500 seconds earlier than on the current orbit, still passing 10,000 kilometers above the Earth's surface.
It will have too much speed (due to the earth's gravity well) and will speed away (and outward), but will return to the vicinity of the Earth with a low enough speed that another slingshot around the moon will drop Apophis into Earth orbit. As a result of these two slingshot maneuvers, Apophis will have an orbit whose apogee is near the moon, and whose perigee (closest approach) can be tuned by small adjustments in its orbit before it performs the Lunar slingshot.
Over time, some additional velocity should be removed (by ion thrusters or other propulsion methods) so that its orbit is entirely within the moon's orbit, or some other permanently stable orbit. We don't want it crashing into the moon, either. Apophis is a far too valuable resource to waste.
I'm confident that the orbital changes needed to capture Apophis are within current technology capabilities, although more detailed analysis is certainly needed. And this is an opportunity that should not be missed: a billion dollar mission to capture Apophis will result in a trillion dollar resource in high-Earth orbit, and avoid a trillion dollar catastrophe at the same time.
Apophis masses perhaps 50,000,000 tons. While the largest percentage is oxygen, approximately 20% is metals (primarily iron). It contains large amounts of magnesium and aluminum, and significant quantities of hydrogen (think millions of tons of water). It contains more than enough silicon to build all of the power satellites we'll ever need.
Who could pass that up? If not NASA and the U.S. government, then perhaps the Chinese, or Dubai. Or even private enterprise; this project is well within the funding capabilities of large corporations or even a few individuals. Perhaps Bill Gates would like to have a private moon around the Earth. Or the Disney corporation (I'm thinking Disneymoon), or Hyatt Hotels (I'd love to stay at the Apophis Hyatt some day).