NASA render of NEO Surveyor spacecraft designed to spacecraft will be equipped with an infrared camera to detect and characterize large asteroids and comets traveling within 50 million kilometers of Earth orbit. Credit: NASA

SAN FRANCISCO — Thales Alenia Space won a contract from Ball Aerospace, prime contractor for NASA’s Near Earth Object (NEO) Surveyor, to provide key communications components for the spacecraft destined Earth-sun Lagrange point 1.

Under the contract announced Feb. 13, Thales Alenia Space will supply NEO Surveyor’s S-band transponder, K-band modulator and K-band traveling wave tube amplifier to transmit data 1.5 million kilometers between L1 and Earth.

“The entire company is very excited to be part of this mission,” Ken Fischer, Thales Alenia Space director of business development for North America, told SpaceNews. “The NEO Surveyor program has been a long time coming.”

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory manages the NEO Surveyor mission scheduled to launch no earlier than September 2027. The spacecraft will be equipped with an infrared camera to scan the solar system to measure and characterize asteroids and comets more than 140-meters across traveling within 50 million kilometers of Earth orbit. 

Changing Trajectories

In 2022, NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirect Test succeeded in modifying the orbit of Dimorphos, a moon orbiting near-Earth asteroid Didymos.

“DART demonstrated that you can change the trajectory of an asteroid, but it is important to locate them,” said Miriam Catalan, Thales Alenia Space business development manager for international markets.

If an asteroid with a 140-meter diameter struck Earth, it would release hundreds of megatons of energy. NEO Surveyor addresses that threat, which has “a small probability of occurring, but very bad effects if something were to happen,” Fischer said.

Thales Alenia Space, a joint venture between Thales of France and Leonardo of Italy, declined to comment on the value of the NEO Surveyor equipment contract.

Communications from L1

Thales Alenia Space will produce NEO Surveyor transponders in Madrid and modulators in Toulouse, France. Traveling wave tube amplifiers will be manufactured in Charleroi, Belgium.

NEO Surveyor communications presents a few challenges. Equipment must take into account radiation levels and receiver sensitivity required for spacecraft at L1. “But those are all issues that we strive to make routine,” Fischer said.

Emmanuel Terrasse, Thales Alenia vice president equipment, said in a statement, “We are thrilled to provide key communications equipment for the NEO Surveyor mission, which will represent a significant advance in NASA-led planetary defense efforts to protect our planet from hazardous asteroids and comets.”

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...