Castillo-Rogez, Julie - Reconnaissance of a Human Exploration Target with the NEA Scout Mission

The Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) Division from Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) assessed and selected the proposed the Near Earth Asteroid (NEA) Scout mission concept in September 2013.  The primary purpose of this mission would be to demonstrate a capability for low cost precursor reconnaissance of prospective human exploration targets. This mission would approach and perform a slow flyby of a NEA from the Near-Earth Object Human Space Flight Accessible Targets Study utilizing a 6U Cubesat platform propelled by a 80 m2 solar sail and equipped with a visible camera with color filters. The current baseline target is 2012 UV136, an Apollo asteroid in the 20-50 meter size range. The proposed NEA Scout mission would be launched as a secondary payload on the Space Launch System (SLS) Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), the first planned flight of the SLS and the second un-crewed test flight of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle.

In the course of the mission, the NEA Scout spacecraft would obtain observations directly responsive to the strategic knowledge gaps for Human exploration that need to be retired; in particular, the target ephemeris, shape, rotational properties, spectral class, local dust and debris field, regional morphology, and regolith properties. Some of these properties would be directly inferred from medium-field imaging.  Others, like surface stability and soil properties, would be inferred by high-resolution imaging helped by a strong theoretical science exploration framework that is currently developed in some of the Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI) nodes.

The overall implementation of NEA Scout mission embraces the paradigm change offered by the Cubesat architecture that yield for low mission cost: use of off-the-shelf components and subsystems that are tailored for a long cruise in deep space. Solar sail propulsion offers navigation agility during the cruise for approaching the target. The mission would also leverage recent onboard science data processing progress as mission’s limited resources require responsibility for key activities to be handled autonomously.

The NEA Scout mission embodies the spirit of exploration with a bold approach to human accessible NEA target reconnaissance. By targeting a NEA smaller than 100 meters, the objectives of NEA Scout are also synergistic with other NASA interests, such as Planetary Defense and asteroid science.

Acknowledgements: The NEAScout mission concept is being developed jointly between Marshall Space Flight Center, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Langley Research Center, Johnson Space Center, and Goddard Space Flight Center.