NASA tests solar sail for Exploration Mission 1’S NEA Scout
On June 28, 2018 NASA conducted a successful deployment test of the solar sail for the space agency’s Near-Earth Asteroid Scout (NEA Scout) CubeSat mission. NEA Scout is a small satellite designed to study asteroids close to the Earth and is scheduled to launch on Exploratory Mission-1 (EM-1). The test was conducted inside a clean room at the NeXolve facility in Huntsville, Alabama.
NEA Scout is one of 13 CubeSats selected to fly as secondary payloads on EM-1, the first integrated test launch of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Lockheed Martin’s Orion spacecraft. In addition to testing these integrated systems, the flight should provide a rare chance to send small satellites into deep space where they can conduct science missions and test new technologies beyond low-Earth orbit.
“Developing a sail to harness the sun’s energy to fly through space was once thought impossible,” said Joe Matus, NEA Scout project manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center via an agency-issued release. “Just in this decade we’ve seen innovation and progress on this promising technology and NEA Scout is another step to using solar sails to explore our solar system. This team has worked really hard to make this technology a reality, and knowing that the sail we just tested will be the actual sail that propels NEA Scout through space is very exciting, and a testament to the knowledge and capabilities of our team.”
NEA Scout is designed to deploy from the SLS after the Orion spacecraft separates from the launch vehicle’s upper stage. If everything goes as planned, NEA Scout should then deploy its solar sail using four arms, called booms, to hold the sail. The sail is square in shape, with each side about the size of a school bus. The sail will harness the light of the Sun to propel the spacecraft. Once the sail is deployed, NEA scout will travel to and fly-by an asteroid, capturing photographic images and data that will help scientists better understand both the asteroid itself as well as the risks and challenges that may face future human exploration missions.
“Over the last couple of tests of our engineering test unit, we made improvements to the spacecraft’s sail deployment system,” said Tiffany Lockett, NEA Scout project system engineer. “This test is the first and only time the sail will be deployed before it flies on EM-1, so we had to make sure the system will work correctly. We are analyzing the test data to make sure the deployment system worked as expected, before final assembly into the spacecraft and delivery for launch.”
The first CubeSats to travel into deep space were the twin Mars Cube One (MarCO) spacecraft which launched with NASA’s Mars InSight mission on May 5, 2018, and are currently on their way to Mars. Spacecraft like NEA Scout are described as being the next step in demonstrating how innovative technologies could take science instruments further out into the solar system.
Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise. While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004. Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.