Laser Interaction with Minerals Common on Asteroids

Abstract: Asteroids are worth studying for three reasons: planetary protection, industrial applications, and scientific knowledge. It is critical we develop technologies capable of diverting objects on collision courses with our planet. We can use the same technology to move or process asteroids and comets for materials to build structures or refuel in Low-Earth Orbit. Asteroids are also windows into the past; they were formed in the early Solar System, and could potentially have been the source of water and/or life on Earth. There are unique challenges to manipulating an asteroid or asteroid materials, which means that much of what we know about material processing needs to be revamped to fit the situation. One of the motivating drives of this research was that a laser would be an excellent tool to perform many tasks at an asteroid.One process of interest is laser drilling. The surface composition of asteroids is altered by aeons of space weathering; by studying the subsurface composition we can ascertain just how much it is altered and possibly by which processes. It is possible that hydrated minerals or ices exist below the surface as well, which are of great economic interest in asteroid mining. One of the greatest challenges to get under the surface of an asteroid is the low gravity: any forces or torques generated by a sampling mechanism may tip the spacecraft or launch it into deep space. A laser does not generate any significant forces, and can even be used without having to land; lasers do use a lot of electric power so the laser parameters need to be optimized to minimize the size and power requirements of the spacecraft. We found that nearly 1-cm deep holes can be made with as little as 18~J of energy using a 300-W laser.Laser ablation has been studied as a mechanism to redirect asteroids, but it is not particularly energy efficient at material removal. If the idea is to create a momentum exchange by removing surface material beyond an object's gravitational pull, then there could perhaps be more energy efficient mechanisms. One mechanism we investigated was spallation, where the shock wave of a laser pulse breaks off a relatively large chunk of material without having to melt and vaporize it. We found that spallation may be many times more energy efficient than ablation.Laser welding of metals has been of industrial interest for decades, though the welding of two different materials is still a challenge. We sought to develop a laser-based wire-attachment mechanism that can be used to anchor spacecraft to the surface of a small body or to maneuver boulders or small asteroids. When attempting to follow a traditional welding process, it was found that the two melt pools would not mix, and if it did, it was very weak. Instead, we used the laser to drill a hole and melt a wire while inserting it into the hole. This produced a solid anchor with a hold strength of up to 120~N.

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