BLACKSBURG, Va., June 12, 2012 – Engineering Science and Mechanics Department at Virginia Tech seniors Aleksandr Andreyev, Andy Borum, James Burns, and Peter Wentzel worked on "Capturing Near-Earth Asteroids Using A Binary Exchange Mechanism", a project where they did modeling, simulation, and analysis of a new method of capturing an asteroid in an orbit around the Earth, with Dr. Shane Ross who is an Associate Professor of Engineering Science and Mechanics as advisor. Not only did the project win the Dan Pletta Award for the best design project, but also the Howard Sword Award for the best computational design project.
Asteroids are rich in minerals which are rare on Earth and as terrestrial supplies reach their limit, looking for natural resources in space becomes more attractive. Planetary Resources, a new company with funding provided by Hollywood director James Cameron and the founders of Google, is the first to develop serious plans to mine asteroids using robotic spacecraft.
If an asteroid were brought to Earth orbit, like an artificial "moon", the costs to reach it for mining would be drastically reduced. But the cost of slowing down an asteroid so it goes into orbit is beyond the reach of current propulsion technology. So the senior design project proposed a way to capture an asteroid into an Earth orbit for "free", using natural gravitational dynamics. The main idea is that after a close approach with the Earth, a binary asteroid pair (two asteroids which orbit each other while they orbit the Sun together) will be disrupted an one of the asteroids will be captured in a stable orbit around the Earth.
See the teams Conference Paper in PDF form.