Sat. May 21st, 2022

NASA wants to propel a shoebox-sized spacecraft to an asteroid using a solar sail, the first deep space mission from the agency to use such a mechanism.

The Near-Earth Asteroid Scout (NEA Scout) is a small vessel called a CubeSat, and it will be one of 10 secondary payloads on the upcoming Artemis I unmanned test flight (currently scheduled for March 2022). The satellite is only the size of a shoebox, but the reflective sail that will pull it through space unfolds to 925 square feet. Gas thrusters will put CubeSat on orbit for the nearby asteroid target, but the sunshade will do the propulsion work for the rest of the two-year journey.

Solsejl utilizes momentum from the Sun’s photons to propel spacecraft forward. Because rocket fuel is a significant factor in the weight of spacecraft and their lifespan in space, it pays to need as little of it as possible. The larger the awning, the more sunlight the vessel can capture. By changing the position of the sail to the angle of sunlight, the NEA Scout can change its trajectory.

The scout will be on his way to an asteroid called 2020 GE, which was first seen in March 2020 (hence its name). The asteroid is less than 18.29 m across, and because asteroids of its size have not been explored close before, it is a fantastic research target. Smaller rocks can still have harmful effects if they hit the Earth, such as the Chelyabinsk meteor in 2013.

“Although large asteroids are of major concern from a planetary defense perspective, objects like 2020 GE are far more common and can pose a danger to our planet despite their smaller size,” said Julie Castillo-Rogez, the primary science researcher for the NEA Scout Mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in an agency release. “2020 GE represents a class of asteroids that we currently know very little about.”

CubeSat has a camera on board to collect information on the makeup, size and features of the 2020 GE. It could be a solid rock or a fusion of dusty and smaller rocks that are tucked together, like the asteroid Bennu. Asteroids remain a point of interest for NASA; The Lucy mission to study Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids, launched in October 2021, and the Psyche mission to launch in August.

Apart from asteroids, the NEA Scout also paves the way for two other solar sail missions: the Advanced Composite Solar Sail System, which according to NASA’s website will be launched in mid-2022 at the earliest, and the Solar Cruiser, which will head towards the Sun in 2025 with a giant sail of 18,000 square meters. The future of sailing technology in space is bright.

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