HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) – As NASA gets closer to launching their mega moon rocket for the first time, they are also getting closer to sending another Marshall Space Flight Center project into deep space the Near Earth Asteroid Scout.

When the Space Launch System (SLS) launches for the first time from Cape Canaveral in August it will be taking 10 tiny satellites along with it. These CubeSats have been created by teams across the country and the world to help advance our knowledge of what can be achieved in space.

NEA Scout will be one of those CubeSats catching a ride into space. News 19 spoke with Les Johnson at the Marshall Space Flight Center who has been involved with the project since the very beginning. He started working on solar sail technology for NASA about 20 years ago and is the principal investigator for the mission.

NEA Scout’s mission involves two things:

  1. Testing solar sail technology in deep space
  2. Photograph and collect data from a near-Earth Asteroid

“The idea for this has been decades in the making. Solar sails have been talked about as a propulsion system for decades,” Johnson told News 19. “This is not just a tech demo. We’ve actually got to go somewhere, be there on time, and allow scientists to get their information.”

He also explained that solar sail technology has been ready to go for quite a while but they needed the rest of the technology to catch up.

“You get your force of acceleration from the Sun and the Sun’s output doesn’t change… How fast you can move depends on how heavy the something is that you’re trying to move. The same technologies that give us our cellphones are now able to give us all the flight computers, which means they’re a lot lighter weight,” Johnson said.

The solar sail will be about 925 square feet in total, which is about the size of a racquetball court or the length of a school bus on each side to form a square. The sail will be folded up into a strip and then rolled into a coil. Once in space, four booms will unfold and push out the sail.

Johnson said, “Our spacecraft is about the size of two loaves of bread and the whole thing packages in there along with the camera and all of the flight electronics.”

The sail is very similar to the sun shade that has been deployed with the James Webb Space Telescope.

NEA Scout was one of the first CubeSats to be installed into the Artemis I rocket. All the tiny satellites are on a shelf inside of the ring and will be deployed by a spring about 5 hours after launch.

NEA Scout being installed in the SLS rocket’s Orion Stage adapter on July 14, 2021.

Johnson explained that as the Artemis I mission has moved, they have moved with it. With an Aug. 29 launch date, the team is set to travel to an asteroid called 2020GE. There they will study its shape, rotational properties, geological characteristics, and more.

“This is one of the smallest asteroids that we’ve detected…NEA Scout could be the bookends of the asteroid science that is out there,” Johnson said.

With a chuckle, Johnson also discussed potentially being able to officially name asteroid 2020GE.

“If we’re successful and we actually to the asteroid target we’ll have to come up with a name. Which will be kind of fun but that’s down the road.”

When asked about how it feels to have a launch date so close, Johnson said he was excited but a little anxious.

“I have to admit the reality of it probably won’t hit until I’m at the Kennedy Space Center watching the countdown clock,” he explained. “I’m excited but I expect my adrenaline levels to be off the charts.”

NEA Scouts two and a half year mission will be run out of the Marshall Space Flight Center and Johnson said if everything works the way it is supposed to there is a possibility of the mission lasting longer.

“We don’t use fuel, so we won’t be out of propellant. Toward the end of that mission, we will be looking to see if there are other nearby asteroids that we can reorient the sail to give us the push we need to go visit them too,” he told News 19.

You can keep up with NEA Scout and all the other CubeSats launching with the Artemis I mission on our News 19 Artemis page.