Laser ablation for the deflection, exploration and exploitation of near Earth asteroids

Gibbings, Alison Lorraine (2014) Laser ablation for the deflection, exploration and exploitation of near Earth asteroids. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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Laser ablation has been investigated as a possible technique for the contactless deflection of Near Earth Asteroids. It is achieved by irradiating the surface of an asteroid with a laser light source. The absorbed heat from the laser beam sublimates the surface, transforming the illuminated material directly from a solid to a gas. The ablated material then forms into a plume of ejecta. This acts against the asteroid, providing a controllable low thrust, which pushes the asteroid away from an Earth-threatening trajectory.

The potential of laser ablation is dependent on understanding the physical and chemical properties of the ablation process. The ablation model is based on the energy balance of sublimation and was developed from three fundamental assumptions. Experimental verification was used to assess the viability of the ablation model and its performance in inducing a deflection action. It was achieved by ablating a magnesium-iron silicate rock, under vacuum, with a 90 W continuous wave laser. The laser operated at a wavelength of 808 nm and provided intensities that were below the threshold of plasma formation. The experiment measured the average mass flow rate, divergence geometry and temperature of the ejecta plume and the contaminating effects - absorptivity, height and density - of the deposited ejecta. Results were used to improve the ablation model. A critical discrepancy was in the variation between the previously predicted and experimentally measured mass flow rate of the ablated ejecta. Other improvements have also included the energy absorption within the Knudsen layer, the variation of sublimation temperature with local pressure, the temperature of the target material and the partial re-condensation of the ablated material. These improvements have enabled the performance of the ablation process and the specifications of the laser to be revised. Performance exceeded other forms of electric propulsion that provided an alternative contactless, low thrust deflection method.

The experimental results also demonstrated the opportunistic potential of laser ablation. Using existing technologies, with a high technology readiness level, a small and low-cost mission design could demonstrate the technologies, approaches and synergies of a laser ablation mission. The performance of the spacecraft was evaluated by its ability to deflect a small and irregular 4 m diameter asteroid by at least 1 m/s. It was found to be an achievable and measurable objective. The laser ablation system could be successfully sized and integrated into a conventional solar-power spacecraft. Mission mass and complexity is saved by the direct ablation of the asteroid's surface. It also avoids any complex landing and surface operations. Analysis therefore supports the general diversity and durability of using space-based lasers and the applicability of the model's experimental verification.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: Near Earth Asteroids, Asteroid Deflection, Exploration, Exploitation, Laser Ablation, Laser, Experiments.
Subjects: Q Science > QB Astronomy
T Technology > T Technology (General)
Colleges/Schools: College of Science and Engineering > School of Engineering
Supervisor's Name: Vasile, Prof. Massimiliano and Watson, Dr. Ian
Date of Award: 2014
Depositing User: Dr Alison Lorraine Gibbings
Unique ID: glathesis:2014-5219
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 06 Jun 2014 08:33
Last Modified: 06 Jun 2014 08:41

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