I've been meaning to post this for a while.
This summer, a friend and I posed the following scenario: as a prelude to asteroid mining and later colonization, you launch 100 tons (total) of identical autonomous exploration craft to characterize as many bodies in the asteroid belt, as fully as possible, in 50 years.
Since the bodies are so far apart, and you have a limited delta-V to transit from one to another, we set a low limit for the size of "bodies of interest": 1 meter radius -- equivalent to a mass of up to 21-33 tons for a nickel-iron asteroid, which, converted to refined metal that would surely count as a mother load of construction material, assuming the lightweight architecture suited for the low loads and possible propulsive needs in the belt. Even 1 ton of orbiting iron might be worth mining in situ.
The game went as follows: the first player would propose a design for an exploration/sampling craft, as completely as possible (i.e. including its equipment) and the second player would ask questions about the design (or challenge assumptions like the mass of components) and propose a plausible asteroid that would terminate its mission (preferably modeled on known asteroids).
I'm tempted to cite examples, but I don't want to spoil the fun of all the ways such robots could fail. I found that very instructive and surprising, especially as we began to fill in larger mission details.
A "detailed" description doesn't have to be very technical. We tried to base them on historical space probes, so we could make realistic estimates of mass and size. A launch system, capable of placing 100 tons in the Belt, is assumed, but you can choose its trajectory. Try to stick to reasonable current technology e.g. refueling with byproducts from the surface is okay, nanobots aren't.
As an illustration, I'll start you off with a "straw man" probe that you can pick apart: a Luna 9, but with a 2.5 kW Plutonium RTG power plant and NASA's 2.3 kW NSTAR ion thruster. Since modern electronics are lighter than 1960s Soviet tech, I'll allow 30 kg for additional instruments (which we can chose/change as we go along), and 100 kg for reaction mass (thruster "fuel") for a total spacecraft mass of 200 kg each = 500 probes in our historic launch
[All "tons" are assumed to be metric or 'long' tons = 1000 kg =2200 lbs]
Autonomously Exploring the Asteroids -- a game of sorts
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