A tiny asteroid explorer who launched NASA’s lunar mission last week still hasn’t called home.
Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) Scout was one of 10 cubesats that hitched a ride in space on NASA Artemis 1 mission, which was launched on November 16. The spacecraft was designed to navigate in sunlight to fly over a small asteroid dubbed 2020 GE in about a year. But something seems to have gone wrong after the cubesat was deployed.
“After a successful separation and deployment from NASA Space Launch System (SLS) on November 16, the Near-Earth Asteroid Scout (NEA Scout) project team has not yet established communications with the spacecraft,” NASA officials wrote in an emailed statement. . “Teams continue to work to establish contact with NEA Scout.”
Related: Artemis 1 Launch Photos: Unobstructed Views of NASA’s Early Moon Rocket (Gallery)
In particular, NEA Scout staff hope that the spacecraft’s unusual propulsion strategy might help them find the cubesat. Packed into the little satellite was a reflective, silver solar sail which unfolds across 924 square feet (86 square meters) — larger than a racquetball court, according to NASA.
If all had gone well, NEA Scout planned to deploy its canopy in early December, according to a NASA spokesperson, and then use the solar radiation hitting it to reach the asteroid. Instead, though they haven’t heard from the spacecraft, NASA staff issued a command for “an emergency solar sail deployment” twice on Monday (Nov. 21) in the hope that the highly visible sail might help them find the cubesat.
“If the spacecraft listens in and successfully opens its sail, it could be seen from telescopes on Earth,” NASA officials wrote. “Several ground-based observatories are attempting to search for NEA Scout and share data, which will be invaluable in helping determine the status of the spacecraft.”
NEA Scout isn’t the only cubesat from last week’s Artemis 1 launch struggling. For example, OMOTENASHI, a tiny Japanese lunar lander, missed his rendezvous with the moon and another NASA cubesat, LunaH-Map, missed a crucial engine fire as it flew over the moon on Monday. The agency added the cubesats to Artemis 1 knowing that small missions carried higher risk than large spacecraft with more redundancy and durability built into the design.
Other cubesats launched last week appear to be Do better. An Italian cubesat called ArgoMoon is successful send home great photos from the moon and Earth, and a second Japanese mission, called EQUULEUS, reported having
This was taken at 5:05 p.m. on Nov. 21 UTC during the lunar flyby (5550km).— EQUULEUS (@EQUULEUS_en) November 23, 2022
We confirmed that it was taken in the area around 15°N, 120°E on the far side of the Moon.
The simulation shows that it was captured as we had intended and matches well with the past Moon images. pic.twitter.com/VfjOKUewtQ
If NEA Scout recovers, it will be NASA’s first solar sail to leave Earth orbit; if it safely reaches asteroid 2020 GE, the spacecraft will likely make the slowest asteroid flyby yet, and the asteroid will become the smallest any spacecraft has visited, according to NASA.
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