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NASA tests Solar Sail that will study near-earth asteroids

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NASA's Near-Earth Asteroid Scout, performed a successful deployment test June 28 of the solar sail that will launch on Exploration Mission-1..

NASA's Near-Earth Asteroid Scout, performed a successful deployment test June 28 of the solar sail that will launch on Exploration Mission-1..

NASA's Near-Earth Asteroid Scout, a small satellite designed to study asteroids close to Earth, performed a successful deployment test June 28 of the solar sail that will launch on Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1). The test was performed in an indoor clean room at the NeXolve facility in Huntsville, Alabama.

NEA Scout is a six-unit CubeSat that relies on an innovative solar sail for propulsion. It is one of 13 secondary science payloads NASA selected to fly on EM-1. The first in a series of increasingly complex missions, EM-1 will be the first integrated test of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, NASA’s Orion spacecraft and the newly upgraded Exploration Ground Systems at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In addition to testing these integrated systems, this first flight will also provide the rare opportunity for these small experiments to reach deep space destinations, conducting science missions and testing key technologies beyond low-Earth orbit.

NEA Scout will deploy from the rocket after the Orion spacecraft is separated from the upper stage. When deployed, the sail, which is square in shape, with each side about the length of a school bus, will harness the light of the sun to use as propulsion to move through space. Instead of wind, solar sails reflect sunlight for thrust, minimising the need for fuel. 

The NEA Scout solar sail will deploy from the spacecraft using four arms -- called booms -- to hold the sail, much like a sail on a ship. After deployment, the satellite will travel to and fly-by an asteroid, taking photographic data that will help scientists better understand not only the asteroid itself, but the risks and challenges that future human exploration missions may encounter.

Solar sails can’t run out of fuel as long as the sun shines, allowing them to propel spacecraft farther and faster than some traditional propulsion technologies. Spacecraft like NEA Scout are the next step towards larger and more capable solar sails that can take our science instruments farther into the solar system, enabling new science and exploration missions, the Space agency said in a release.