The asteroid belt lies between Mars and Jupiter in our solar system. It is made up of a large collection of varying sized space rocks which orbit the Sun like the planets do. It is thought that the gravity of Jupiter, with a whopping diameter of 138,346.5 Km, was enough to prevent the rocks from coalescing into a world much like Mars or the Earth. Or maybe there was once a planet there, only to be destroyed by a major collision. Jupiter again would be a culprit in this scenario, as its large gravity is also capable of slingshotting huge objects at great speeds in all directions.
In an effort to further understand this mysterious outback, between us rocky worlds and the large gas and ice giants which lay beyond, several missions to the asteroid belt have been planned. One recent unveiling is that of a team of researchers from the Finnish Meteorological Institute and a handful of European Universities, in which fifty nano-probes will tour 300 of these asteroids and conduct experiments to determine their constituent materials and other information like density and mass.
Finding a way of increasing the efficiency of space-faring projects is essential. This network of fifty probes will use a solar sail to find its way to the asteroid belt, the 20km sail will be electronically charged so that when ions from the Sun interact with them, it creates a further repulsion force on top of the pressure from rays of light. These tiny-satellites are to weigh only around 5Kg each, condensing all the modern technology into space-age versions of the smartphone for long distance travel.
The fleet would solve many issues raised with other missions to the asteroid belt, cost being a major factor. Down-sizing and extending the range at the same time seems to be the ideal option when considering what we need to know. The main interest in these objects would be the valuable rare minerals and metals that maybe within them. Many elements have unique uses on Earth, which are also rare and will not last forever. Knowing where to go to get some more will be valuable information for everyone concerned.
Read the scientific outline of the mission here.
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