Author(s): , , ,
Institution(s): 1. Harvard University, 2. Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
The past decade has witnessed considerable growth of interest in missions to Near-Earth Objects (NEOs). NEOs are considered prime targets for manned and robotic missions, for both scientific objectives as well as in-situ resource utilization including harvesting of water for propellant and life support and mining of high-value elements for sale on Earth. Appropriate targets are crucial to such missions. Hence, ultra-low delta-v mission targets are strongly favored. Some mission architectures rely on the discovery of more ultra-low delta-v NEOs. In fact the approved and executed NEO missions have all targeted asteroids with ultra-low LEO to asteroid rendezvous delta-v <5.5 km/s.
In this paper, we estimate the total NEO population as a function of delta-v, and how many remain to be discovered in various size ranges down to ~100m. We couple the NEOSSat-1 model (Greenstreet et al., 2012) to the NEO size distribution derived from the NEOWISE survey (Mainzer et al., 2011b) to compute an absolute NEO population model. We compare the Minor Planet Center (MPC) catalog of known NEOs to this NEO population model. We compute the delta-v from LEO to asteroid rendezvous orbits using a modified Shoemaker-Helin (S-H) formalism that empirically removes biases found comparing S-H with the results from NHATS. The median delta-v of the known NEOs is 7.3 km/s, the median delta-v predicted by our NEO model is 9.8 km/s, suggesting that undiscovered objects are biased to higher delta-v. The survey of delta-v <10.3 km/s NEOs is essentially complete for objects with diameter D >300 m. However, there are tens of thousands of objects with delta-v <10.3 km/s to be discovered in the D = 50 - 300 m size class (H = 20.4 - 24.3). Our work suggests that there are 100 yet-undiscovered NEOs with delta-v < 5:8 km/s, and 1000 undiscovered NEOs with v < 6.3 km/s. We conclude that, even with complete NEO surveys, the selection of good (i.e. ultra-low delta-v) mission targets is limited given current propulsion technology. Visiting the full range of NEO sub-types will likely require improved propulsion systems.