Solar sail craft ready for space mission
Aluminum-coated sail to carry NEA Scout on exploratory quest Metal Tech News – July 21, 2021
Last updated 7/27/2021 at 4:39pm
While it is not quite a space yacht sailing to Alpha Centauri at 134 million miles per hour, NASA's Near-Earth Asteroid Scout will be the first spacecraft to sail on solar winds to a destination beyond Earth's orbit.
"NEA Scout will be America's first interplanetary mission using solar sail propulsion," said Les Johnson, principal technology investigator for the mission at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. "There have been several sail tests in Earth orbit, and we are now ready to show we can use this new type of spacecraft propulsion to go new places and perform important science."
More information on solar sails and advanced materials being studied for sails capable of interstellar travel can be read at Sailing to Alpha Centauri with graphene in the October 28, 2020 edition of Metal Tech News.
Roughly the size of a large shoebox, this solar sailing CubeSat, more commonly referred to as NEA Scout, will use stainless steel alloy booms to deploy an aluminum-coated plastic film sail – thinner than a human hair and about the size of a racquetball court – that will capture solar winds to navigate its exploration mission to the small asteroid that it is being sent to investigate.
Energetic particles of sunlight, called photons, bouncing off the large solar sail will give NEA Scout a gentle yet constant nudge that will gradually accelerate the small reconnaissance craft to the very high speeds needed to catch this asteroid.
With the sail and scientific instruments all packed up in its shoebox-sized configuration, NEA Scout will hitch a ride on Artemis I, the first in a series of increasingly complex missions that will enable human exploration to the Moon and Mars. One of several secondary payloads on this first Artemis mission, the space pioneer has been stowed inside NASA's powerful Space Launch System in preparation for the planned November launch.
Once free of Earth's gravitational pull, NEA Scout will deploy its sail and begin a roughly two-year cruise to the near-Earth asteroid it is being sent to explore. Near-Earth being relative to the vastness of space – when the interplanetary CubeSat reaches its destination it will be about 93 million miles away, or more than twice the distance to Mars when it is nearest to Earth.
Upon reaching its destination, the spacecraft will use a scientific-grade camera to capture images of the asteroid, which scientists will then study to further our understanding of these small but important islands in our solar system.
NASA says a relatively low-velocity flyby offered by the solar sail propulsion will allow NEA Scout to capture high-resolution images that will help scientists better understand smaller asteroids – less than 100 meters or about the length of a football field – that have never been explored by spacecraft.
"The images gathered by NEA Scout will provide critical information on the asteroid's physical properties such as orbit, shape, volume, rotation, the dust and debris field surrounding it, plus its surface properties," said Julie Castillo-Rogez, the mission's principal science investigator at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
This information will provide a better understanding of these interstellar neighbors that are too small to study in any detail from a distance but large enough to be a problem if they were on a collision course with Earth.
"Despite their size, some of these small asteroids could pose a threat to Earth," Dr. Jim Stott, NEA Scout technology project manager, said. "Understanding their properties could help us develop strategies for reducing the potential damage caused in the event of an impact."
These small space rocks could also be rich in minerals, ice and other resources that could serve as fuel, water, and building materials for NASA's Artemis program and other missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond – items too large to be stuffed into a shoebox-sized care package to Man's interplanetary family.