NASA will launch a spacecraft that will chase a bus-sized asteroid deep into space to save Earth from danger. NASA will also be doing a first in this regard.
Under an unmanned NASA mission, the US space agency will launch a spacecraft to chase a small asteroid in its effort to study the potential danger asteroids of its size could pose to Earth. While NASA’s attention is focused on the large Near Earth Asteroids (NEA), the fact is that the smaller ones are much more numerous and also dangerous – the asteroid that exploded over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk was only about 20 meters in diameter. When it exploded, it destroyed windows in 2013 and injured more than 1,600 people. Now, NASA’s Artemis I mission, which is actually intended to test the SLS rockets and Orion spacecraft to send humans to the moon, will also serve to send a Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) Scout spacecraft to to chase an asteroid called 2020 GE. It will also see NASA do a first. According to phys.org, it will be “…the smallest asteroid ever visited by a spacecraft”.
The Near-Earth Asteroid Scout spacecraft that NASA plans to send is extremely small, in fact as small as a shoebox. It will reach the target asteroid by deploying a solar sail and using solar radiation as propulsion.
How will the Scout spacecraft study the GE asteroid 2020?
Asteroids less than 100 meters in diameter have never been observed up close. The spacecraft’s science camera will be used to get a closer look at GE asteroid 2020, while measuring its various aspects, including size, shape and surface to gather more information about its composition. The mission’s science team will be able to determine whether 2020 GE is solid or not. This is made possible by the Scout camera which can capture resolutions of less than 4 inches per pixel.
The asteroid mission will provide valuable planetary defense information about this type of NEA. The University of Arizona’s Catalina Sky Survey first spotted the 2020 GE on March 12, 2020, as part of its search for near-Earth objects for NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office.
The job of NEA Scout spacecraft is to also demonstrate the use of solar sails in deep space encounters. The spacecraft is too small to carry its own propulsion system, and so it will use sunlight to power it, propel it and navigate it toward the asteroid. It will use a shade sail that will expand from a compact package to about the sheer size of a racquetball court, or 925 square feet when released. The NEA Scout spacecraft will also demonstrate the use of solar sails in deep space encounters. The sail provides most of the propulsion for the NEA Scout, while small cold gas units with limited fuel supply aid movement and orientation. Because sunlight is a constant force, a small spacecraft equipped with a large solar sail can travel many miles per second. This sail is lightweight and is made of plastic-coated aluminum that is thinner than human hair.