Photo credit: NASA/MSFC
By Mark Strauss
In 1418, European sailing vessels left their ports to explore the Atlantic Ocean, initiating a great Age of Discovery.
In 2018, a small space probe will unfurl a sail and begin a journey to a distant asteroid. It’s the first NASA spacecraft that will venture beyond Earth’s orbit propelled entirely by sunlight. This technology could enable inexpensive exploration of the solar system and, eventually, interstellar space.
The $16 million probe, called the Near-Earth Asteroid Scout, is one of the 13 science payloads that NASA announced Tuesday. They will hitch a ride on the inaugural flight of the Space Launch System—the megarocket designed to replace the space shuttle and, one day, send the Orion spacecraft to Mars.
It will take 2.5 years for the NEA Scout to reach its destination, a smallish asteroid named 1991 VG. But it won’t be a leisurely cruise. The continuous thrust provided by sunlight hitting the solar sail will accelerate the probe to an impressive 63,975 mph (28.6 km/s) relative to the sun.
Given enough time, a spacecraft equipped with a solar sail can eventually accelerate to higher speeds than a similarly sized spacecraft propelled by a conventional chemical rocket.
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