Johns Hopkins University
We propose a method for discerning the gravity fields and sub-surface mass distribution of a solar system small body, without requiring dedicated orbiters or landers. Instead of a lander, a spacecraft releases a swarm of small, low-cost probes during a flyby past an asteroid or comet. By tracking those probes, we can estimate the asteroid’s gravity field and infer its underlying composition and structure. This approach offers a diverse measurement set, equivalent to planning and executing many independent and unique flyby encounters of a single spacecraft. The resulting dataset can yield a global model of the body’s mass distribution and reveal unique aspects of the body’s interior structure that are otherwise unobservable. This concept offers the possibility of achieving new scientific measurements that extend our understanding of our solar system, benefit human spaceflight, and support planetary protection.