For several years, our lab has been imagining how human or robotic missions will explore asteroids. Since the surface of the asteroid — or even the entire asteroid — is composed of loosely-packed granular materials, even a kid tossing a ball would be faster than the escape velocity! One of our ideas is that an asteroid mission might securely attach to the surface by gently sending down roots like a plant. We’re excited that this idea got a short mention in the new book Soonish.
We have started experiments to test these ideas in the lab, and we just received NASA funding for Project EMPANADA (Ejecta-Minimizing Protocols for Applications Needing Anchoring or Digging on Asteroids) to perform experiments on a series of parabolic flights. Our first experiments to quantify the basic mechanics of low-gravity digging will take place this spring, led by Jonathan Kollmer and built by a team of NC State Undergraduates in collaboration with Josh Colwell at the University of Central Florida. Stay tuned for pictures!