Summer School Alpbach 2018
Sample return from small solar system bodies
July 17-26, Alpbach/Tyrol – Austria
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The Summer School Programme

Beyond the Sun, its eight planets, and their larger moons, the solar system is home to a myriad of other, smaller bodies, including dwarf planets, asteroids, trojans, centaurs, and comets, all the way down to interplanetary dust particles. The size and spatial distributions of these families, along with their orbital properties, composition, and internal structure play a key role in our understanding of the formation and evolution of the solar system. Collisions between some of these objects and the larger planets and moons have likely played a part in delivering volatiles and organics to them, and in their geological and biological evolution. A major collision may yet cause the extinction of humankind in case of an event similar to that at the end of the Cretaceous which brought about the demise of the dinosaurs.

The majority of the roughly 800,000 small solar system bodies known today are confined to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. But others are found closer to Earth, in Earth-crossing orbits, or in gravitationally-favourable locations such as the trojans located at Lagrange points associated with various planets. It is also thought that some of the more irregular moons in the solar system, including Phobos and Deimos around Mars, may be captured asteroids. And recent discoveries even suggest that we may occasionally be visited by asteroid-like objects coming in from interstellar space. Conversely, while the number of comets known today totals just a few thousand, they originate in two main reservoirs containing up to a trillion such objects, namely the Kuiper Belt in the ecliptic beyond Neptune and the Oort Cloud, uniformly distributed around the solar system at large distances, perhaps stretching halfway to our nearest stellar neighbours. ‘Dead comets’ as well as active asteroids may also be found in the asteroid belt.

Remote telescopic observations can reveal much about these various families of objects via imaging and spectroscopic surveys, while meteorites provide physical samples that have fallen through the Earth’s atmosphere, whether primordial chondritic material or more processed achondritic and metallic objects as fragments of shattered asteroids.

But there is no substitute for studying the solar system’s small bodies directly in situ with spacecraft and, ideally, returning samples to Earth. The latter would enable the most detailed possible analysis, providing a crucial link with remote spectroscopic observations and the compositions of meteorites in order to develop a much wider understanding of these small bodies, their properties, and what they can tell us about the evolution of the solar system. In addition, samples returned to Earth can be analyzed in the future with instrumentation not available today. This is illustrated by the detection of traces of water in samples from the moon in 2008, ~40 years after they were retrieved by the Apollo missions. Beyond these academic questions, there are also more practical issues related to the possible commercial exploitation of resources from asteroids and comets, and to potential approaches towards protecting the Earth from major extinction-level impact events in the future.

The format of the Summer School 2018

The aim of the lectures is to enable the students to select and formulate objectives for new space missions.

The offered lectures will cover existing and planned space missions, space mission design, and the principles of instrumentation for the required observations, including in-situ measurements. The lectures will provide the students with the scientific and technical background needed for defining and elaborating innovative space missions.

Four student teams will be set up to define the scientific objectives of a space mission and a preliminary end-to-end mission design including the spacecraft, scientific instruments, mission, and science operations capable of meeting the stated objectives.