The uncrewed Artemis I mission is primarily being viewed as a test of NASA’s SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft as a preliminary to bringing humans back to the moon. In addition, however, the Near-Earth Asteroid Scout spacecraft will be launched with Artemis I.
NEA Scout is a tiny CubeSat that will “follow down what will become the tiniest asteroid ever visited by a spacecraft,” according to NASA. Its target is asteroid 2020 GE, which is about the size of a school bus. The space rock is just about 60 feet long (18 meters).
It’s exciting enough to visit a small asteroid, but the way NEA Scout will navigate about is much better. “It will get there by unfurling a solar sail to harvest solar energy for propulsion,” NASA stated in a statement released on Thursday.
Solar sail technology is still a developing field. Though the small spacecraft relies on photon particles from the sun rather than wind, the sailing metaphor fits. The LightSail 2 CubeSat, launched by the Planetary Society in 2019, successfully demonstrated the technology.
The solar sail of the NEA Scout is composed of ultra-thin plastic-coated metal that unfolds to the size of a racquetball court. The CubeSat is approximately the same size as a shoebox.
NASA intends to investigate 2020 GE to see if it is a single solid object or a clump of smaller pebbles. “While huge asteroids are the most concerning in terms of planetary security, objects like 2020 GE are significantly more numerous and, despite their smaller size, may represent a threat to our planet,” said NEA Scout senior science investigator Julie Castillo-Rogez.
Artemis I is slated to debut this year, maybe as early as March or April. Then, if all goes according to plan, NEA Scout will collide with its asteroid in late 2023.