HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) – As NASA gets closer to launching its mega lunar rocket for the first time, it’s also getting closer to sending another Marshall Space Flight Center project into deep space, the Near Earth Asteroid. Scout.
When the Space Launch System (SLS) first launches from Cape Canaveral in August, it will take 10 tiny satellites with it. These CubeSats were created by teams across the country and the world to help advance our knowledge of what can be achieved in space.
NEA Scout will be one of those CubeSats that will take a spin in space. News 19 spoke with Les Johnson at Marshall Space Flight Center who has been involved with the project from the very beginning. He began working on solar sail technology for NASA about 20 years ago and is the mission’s principal investigator.
NEA Scout’s mission involves two things:
- Testing solar sail technology in deep space
- Photograph and collect data from a near-Earth asteroid
“The idea for this has been decades in the making. Solar sails have been talked about as a propulsion system for decades,” Johnson told News 19. “It’s not just a technology demonstration. we actually have to go somewhere, be there on time and allow the scientists to get their information.
He also explained that the solar sail technology had been ready for a while, but they needed the rest of the technology to catch up.
“You get your acceleration force from the Sun and the output from the Sun doesn’t change… How fast you can move depends on the weight of the thing you’re trying to move. The same technologies that give us our cell phones are now able to give us all flight computers, which means they’re much lighter,” Johnson said.
The solar sail will have a total area of approximately 925 square feet, which is about the size of a racquetball court or the length of a school bus on each side to form a square. The sail will be folded into a strip and then rolled up into a reel. Once in space, four booms will deploy and push the sail.
Johnson said, “Our spacecraft is about the size of two loaves of bread and all the stuff is in there with the camera and all the flight electronics.”
The sail is very similar to the sunshade that was deployed with the James Webb Space Telescope.
NEA Scout was one of the first CubeSats to be installed in the Artemis I rocket. All of the tiny satellites are on a shelf inside the ring and will be deployed by a spring approximately 5 hours after launch.
Johnson explained that as the Artemis I mission moved, they moved with it. With an August 29 launch date, the team is set to travel to an asteroid called 2020GE. There they will study its shape, rotational properties, geological features, etc.
“This is one of the smallest asteroids we’ve detected…NEA Scout could be the spearhead of asteroid science,” Johnson said.
With a chuckle, Johnson also raised the possibility of officially naming the asteroid 2020GE.
“If we are successful and actually hit the asteroid target, we will have to come up with a name. Which will be kind of fun, but it’s on the road.
When asked how it felt to have a launch date so close, Johnson said he was excited but a little anxious.
“I have to admit, reality probably won’t hit me until I’m at Kennedy Space Center watching the countdown,” he explained. “I’m excited, but I expect my adrenaline level to be off the charts.”
The NEA Scouts’ two-and-a-half-year mission will operate out of Marshall Space Flight Center and Johnson said if everything works as planned, the mission may last longer.
“We don’t use fuel, so we won’t run out of propellant. Towards the end of this mission, we will be looking to see if there are any other asteroids nearby that we can reorient the sail to to give us the push we need to go visit them as well,” he said. he told News 19.
You can follow NEA Scout and all other CubeSats launched with the Artemis I mission on our News 19 Artemis page.
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