CubeSat with Giant Solar Sail Headed for Asteroid Aboard Artemis I Launch

Illustration of NASA’s NEA Scout with the solar sail deployed as it flies by its asteroid destination. (Credit: NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

A giant solar sail measuring 86 square meters (925.7 square ft) is headed for a rendezvous with an asteroid next Monday as a secondary payload aboard the Artemis I launch to the moon on Monday. A presentation about NASA’s Near Earth Asteroid (NEA) Scout mission earlier this month at the Small Satellite Conference in Logan, Utah.

NEA Scout’s solar sail is packed inside of a 6U CubeSat that measures a mere 20 cm × 10 cm × 34.05 cm (7.9 x 3.9 x 13.4 inches).

The sail will be deployed by 7.3 m (24 ft) long booms.

The spacecraft was built by employees at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama and Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California with the support from the space agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, Johnson Space Center in Texas and Langley Research Center in Virginia.

NEA Scout has a series of ambitious objectives. The key technical goal is to test the capability of large solar sails to propel small satellites on relatively inexpensive missions to deep space. Solar sails are propelled by solar photons—sunlight—that reflect off their mirror-like surfaces.

By using sunlight, solar sails can reduce or completely eliminate the need for heavy propellant. Spacecraft can be made both smaller and carry more scientific payloads.

NEA Scout is designed to return valuable scientific data about the Earth-crossing asteroid 2020 GE. The asteroid is believed to be no more than 18 meters across, and it will be the smallest object in the Solar System ever explored if the mission is successful.

The results will provide scientists with valuable information about the composition of asteroids. The data will also assist in planetary defense efforts to divert or destroy dangerous asteroids before they can strike Earth.

NEA Scout will return images at resolutions using a high-resolution, science-grade monochromatic camera as it gets closer to the asteroid.