A gigantic 86 square meter solar sail to power little more than a shoe box. It is the striking and miniature NEA Scout spaceship. Her journey will begin in March 2022, when she is launched alongside the Artemis I mission flight to explore a small asteroid.
The ‘Near-Earth Asteroid Scout’ is a NASA spacecraft that will take advantage of one of the space technologies that most reminds us of how humans traveled for thousands of years. This ship will look driven by the impact of photons, with a large giant candle.
Because the sunlight hits the candle and is capable of generating movement. It is a minimal force compared to the wind on Earth, but in space, as there is no friction, it is enough to power a small ship.
A pioneering mission to test solar sail technology
The goal is to reach asteroid 2020 GE, a body observed for the first time in March 2020 and whose size does not exceed 18 meters. If it achieved its goal, the NEA Scout would become the ship to explore the smallest asteroid. Till the date, no spacecraft had approached an asteroid less than 100 meters.
The trip is planned to last at least two years to reach the necessary speed with the solar sail. Later, in September 2023, when the asteroid passes close to Earth, the “approach” will be attempted, also helped with the Moon’s gravity.
Despite the gigantic size of the solar sail, the spacecraft itself is, as NASA explains, the size of a “large shoe box.” Inside it houses a camera with a resolution of 4 inches per pixel, which will allow it to study and measure the shape, size, rotation and properties on the surface of 2020 GE in search of dust and debris.
The NEA Scout mission is aimed at several issues. On the one hand, the most direct of improving the understanding of near-Earth asteroids and seeing, for example, if they are composed of smaller rocks and clumped dust.
On the other hand, this mission will be one of the most important to test solar sail technology. One of the 10 payloads aboard the SLS will be released and use its stainless steel alloy arms to unfold the sail, made of aluminum and covered with a thin plastic. In total, a huge 86-meter sail where the photons will impact and will serve to move the tiny ship.
If the NEA Scout is successful, it will serve to help future missions like the Solar Cruiser, whose sail will have a size of 1,700 square meters. In 2019, the LightSail 2 and its 32 square meter sail already proved to work. Slowly, space missions bet on bigger sails.
More information | NASA