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Tiny Spacecraft Gears Up to Visit Small Asteroid, Will Use the Sun to Get There

NASA’s Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) Scout is preparing for the ultimate space ride. This year, the agency plans to launch Artemis I, the first uncrewed mission to the Moon – and NEA Scout is coming along. Its goal? To have a meeting with what will turn out to be the smallest asteroid ever visited by a spacecraft.
Illustration of NASA's NEA Scout spacecraft 6 photos
NEA Scout spacecraftNEA Scout spacecraftNEA Scout spacecraftNEA Scout sail fully deployedIllustration of NEA Scout spacecraft
NEA Scout is a small spacecraft about the size of a shoebox designed to study small asteroids located near Earth. The machine is one of the payloads hitching a ride on NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), which is set to take off this year in March as part of the Artemis I mission.

Once in space, NEA Scout’s thrusters will provide the maneuvering that will help the spacecraft get set on the right course to the asteroid. Then, most of its propulsion will come from its large solar sail – an aluminum plastic-coated film thinner than a human hair.

This sail, which resembles a giant mirror, will push the vehicle forward by reflecting particles of sunlight. The constant push will eventually allow the spacecraft to increase its speed and catch up to its target.

In this case, the target is 2020 GE, an asteroid smaller than a school bus that is part of the class of near-Earth asteroids. This class has never been explored up-close by spacecraft before, and scientists know little of it. It’s important to note that an asteroid doesn’t have to be huge to wreak havoc on Earth. One such object that was the same class as 2020 GE injured more than 1,600 people back in 2013 when it exploded over Russia.

Therefore, this mission will help researchers gain crucial information about near-Earth asteroids. Once NASA’s tiny spacecraft gets near 2020 GE, it will use the onboard camera to analyze the asteroids’ dimensions, rotation, and composition.

The object will pass by our planet in September 2023. By then, NEA Scout will have gained enough speed to catch up to it.

“NEA Scout will accomplish probably the slowest flyby of an asteroid ever – at a relative speed of less than 100 feet [30 meters] per second,” said Julie Castillo-Rogez, the mission’s principal science investigator at NASA’s JPL. “This will give us a few hours to gather invaluable science and allow us to see what asteroids of this class look like up close.”

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