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Alabama engineers wait to “sail” to an asteroid


NASA is targeting later this month for another launch try for its new Artemis moon rocket. The spacecraft which is managed, designed, and tested at Alabama’s Marshall Space Flight Center has been plagued with hydrogen leaks. Engineers will try to fix the problem at the launch pad. The test flight will do more than check out the new rocket. NASA engineer Les Johnson says a small satellite will use a solar sail to fly to an asteroid…

“This will open the capability for other small spacecraft to use this kind of propulsion, which for small spacecraft gives you more total propulsion than any another system that packed in such a small volume.”

NASA has experimented with solar sails before. But, this CubeSat spacecraft is the first one to use one as its main means of propulsion. Johnson says mission managers will also be tasked to using the sail to precisely target the asteroid NASA wants to explore.

“It’s not a ‘one size fits all’ propulsion system. But, for some classes of missions, very small ones operating near the Sun, it’ll be a whole new capability, and an exciting one because we don’t run out of fuel. So, we have lots of mission flexibility, and can adjust dynamically as we fly.”

The Artemis rocket will also test the new Orion crew capsule. The gumdrop shaped spacecraft is meant to carry astronauts to the Moon for the first time since 1972. That’s when moonwalkers Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt explored the lunar surface during Apollo 17.

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
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