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Advanced Exploration Systems Division

Near Earth Asteroid Scout (NEA Scout)

Active Technology Project

Project Introduction

Near-Earth Asteroid Scout, or NEA Scout, is a 6U CubeSat developed jointly between NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. NASA selected NEA Scout as a candidate secondary payload for Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), the first integrated (uncrewed) flight test of the Space Launch System and Orion Crewed Spacecraft.

NEA Scout is a robotic reconnaissance mission that will be deployed to fly by and return data from an asteroid representative of NEAs that may one day be human destinations. The NEA Scout team is currently evaluating a range of targets, and is continually updating the candidate pool based on new discoveries and expected performance. While the target can change based on launch date, the current planned target is 1991VG. It will be visible for astronomical observations from Earth in the July 2017-March 2018 timeframe, which will help refine its orbit ahead of the mission.  The primary instrument payload will be a visible camera with color filters to collect data regarding the mineralogical, physical, and geotechnical properties of a candidate NEA for potential future robotic and human surface missions.  

Near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) are the most easily accessible bodies in the solar system, and detections of NEAs are expected to grow exponentially in the near future, offering increasing target opportunities.  As NASA continues to refine its plans to possibly explore these small worlds with human explorers, initial reconnaissance with comparatively inexpensive robotic precursors is necessary. Obtaining and analyzing relevant data about these bodies via robotic precursors before committing a crew to visit a NEA will significantly minimize crew and mission risk, as well as maximize exploration return potential.  

In considering targets for human asteroid missions, there are several major factors that will make a significant difference in assessment of mission risks that can be addressed by simple photo-reconnaissance of a target. One of the most important of these factors is the spin state of the asteroid: does it rotate in a slow, easily predictable way? Asteroids that rotate very rapidly or that tumble about multiple axes present significant hazards in planning and executing proximity operations− especially operations that must be carried out over extended time periods.  Another consideration is the physical state of the asteroid itself: is it a coherent mass or does it consist of a gravitationally bound pile of much smaller pieces? A coherent structure is unlikely to rearrange its configuration in response to a push by an astronaut or a hardware deployment and will provide a much easier surface in which to plant anchors for astronaut mobility or to hold equipment to the surface than will a rubble pile.

The full success criteria entails flying by a near Earth asteroid and acquire images sufficient to determine the target volume, shape model, Asteroid spectral type and meteorite analogs, rotational properties (pole position, rotation period), orbit, debris/dust field in local environment, and regolith characteristics.

Meeting this requirement addresses the need to fill Strategic Knowledge Gaps (SKG’s) related to asteroids as a precursor to subsequent safe and successful human missions.  The data obtained will also support the advancement of science interests in asteroids.

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