Summer Interns Perform Concept Design Center Planetary Defense Study

Interns and advisers work in the Concept Design Center on asteroid-deflection plans. (Photo: Elisa Haber)

Ground- and space-based detections have reported more than 16,000 near-Earth objects (NEOs) within the inner solar system, the portion of the solar system between the sun and Mars’ orbit; approximately 9,000 of these have a diameter greater than 100 meters.  Although the probability of a major impact with Earth is very small, events like the unexpected 2013 explosion of a 17 to 20-meter NEO over the city of Chelyabinsk, Russia, and the 1908 40-meter asteroid that exploded over Siberia emphasize the need to develop NEO mitigation systems.

This summer, a multidisciplinary team of interns from three of The Aerospace Corporation’s locations collaborated to create a feasible design to deflect asteroids that could threaten the Earth. The interns used a hypothetical impact scenario from the 2017 Planetary Defense Conference to design a robust system to deflect an asteroid, with a diameter anywhere between 100 to 250 meters that would collide with Earth in 10 years. The study was conducted in The Aerospace Corporation’s Concept Design Center (CDC).

The CDC is an engineering capability for rapid conceptual design of space and ground systems. The CDC employs a concurrent engineering process in which the team creates multiple concept designs and analyses using a network of linked computational design tools. This process allows the team to rapidly explore a wide range of options and then compare the most suitable design solutions.

The Targeted Asteroid Guidance (TAG) intern team developed analysis and final design options using the NEO Deflection App, a web-based interactive tool for planning deflection of earthbound asteroids. Dr. Nahum Melamed, project leader at The Aerospace Corporation, leads the joint Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Aerospace NEO Deflection App development effort. Melamed supports planetary defense conferences and planetary defense exercises, organizing committees where the app is utilized.

Using the app, the intern team analyzed key parameters that influenced mission success, including launch vehicles, deflection payloads, transfer orbits, and NEO velocity sensitivities. The team also implemented additional tools for high-quality modeling and design—the Next Generation Concurrent Engineering Methodology and the Portfolio Decision Support Tool. The intern team divided into subsystems/specialties, such as model-based systems engineering, reliability, and statistics, and analyzed major components of various candidate system designs. Design configurations ranged from impacting directly with the asteroid to detonating a nuclear payload near the asteroid. The team also had a “forward engineering” division that trended technology forward to examine how much a mission like this would change 20 years from now.

On Aug. 2 the TAG team is scheduled to present strategies and configurations from each subsystem for the prototypical planetary defense system, as well as technical findings and lessons learned. Briefings to be held in the CDC include vehicle design, launch strategy, operational concepts, high-level requirements, and communications. The briefing also addresses potential impacts to industry launch schedules as well as the associated civil and commercial costs.