Spacecraft AWOL: Where Is NASA's New Solar Sail?

By Andrew Moseman | December 14, 2010 12:21 pm

NASAnanosailNanoSail-D, phone home.

On December 6, NASA launched its Fast, Affordable, Science and Technology Satellite (FASTSAT), which, among other cargo, carried the test craft NanoSail-D. No bigger than a breadbox, NanoSail-D was supposed to blast free from FASTSAT and spend three days floating free before spreading a 100-square-foot solar sail—what would be NASA’s first successful solar sail project. But while all signs initially indicated the 8-pound box succeeded in ejecting from the satellite, now NASA is not so sure. The agency is having trouble communicating with NanoSail-D, and its whereabouts are unknown.

“We have not been able to locate or make contact with NanoSail-D,” says Kim Newton of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The sail was scheduled to unfurl on 9 December, but NASA reports that the deployment of the sail cannot be confirmed, and it is not clear whether the sail was successfully ejected into space. [New Scientist]

What could have gone wrong? Science asked Bill Nye, executive director of the Planetary Society, an organization which is planning to launch its own solar sail project, LightSail-1.

One, the battery may have been too small and ill-equipped to deal with the cold of space. Two, NanoSail-D could have not ejected at all, as NASA speculates. Or three, the sail could have failed to unfurl. “The key is to make it go out slowly, even in the inertial zero-gravity situation of space,” says Nye. “It wouldn’t be surprising, based on the rudimentary nature of the design, that it went out fast and tangled.” [Science]

Solar sailing is an old idea that got a new boost this summer, when Japan’s Ikaros project unfurled its golden sail in space. Dreamers like Nye imagine someday using solar sails to travel the stars, but NASA has a more mundane (but important) use in mind for the short term.

NanoSail-D is intended to demonstrate a technology that NASA hopes will help bring decommissioned satellites down from Earth’s orbit without using up valuable propellant. The idea is to use radiation from the sun as a sort of wind pushing against a thin sail to propel craft through space. Solar sails could help de-orbit larger satellites, the idea goes, thus helping free Earth orbit of dangerous, cluttering space junk, NASA officials have said. [MSNBC]

Related Content:
DISCOVER: Space Junk: How To Clean Up the Space Age’s Mess (PHOTOS)
DISCOVER: 20 Things You Didn’t Know About… Light
80beats: Maneuvering on a Light Beam: How to Steer a Solar Sail Spacecraft
80beats: How Japan’s Success Reinvigorated Solar Sailing—and What Comes Next
80beats: Solar Sail Success: Japanese Craft Powered by the Sun’s Force

Image: NASA

  • TJ in NJ

    NASA does not have a very good track record. they have had fewer than 250 shuttle flights and 2 of them were catastrophic disasters (Colombia and Challenger). They bounced a martian lander off the Martian atmosphere because of a conversion error, and now they lost a satellite. With a budget that dwarfs the closest private competitor, shouldn’t they be doing a bit of a better job?

  • Darius2025

    Don’t know TJ but i think you fail to realize that as humans… we mostly learn by trial and error. Take a look at the history of spaceflight and you will see how many failures NASA and RASA experienced when they were first pioneering spaceflight. Today’s failures dwarf in comparison. Based on the complexities of spaceflight, I think that their track record is much better than you give them credit for.

    Thats not to say that I don’t think NASA is full of ****. The politics and fear of withdrawn funding don’t allow for full disclosure. We will probably find out what happened to this perticular satellite in about 50 years time.

  • Torres

    I agree with Darius, sorry TJ. Humans learn most effectively through trial and error. If NASA’s projects always go swimmingly they wouldn’t learn as much as when they experience failures. Furthermore, NASA has had some outstanding successes in their history, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers illustrate this point remarkably. Years after they were expected to expire they are still sending back data from the red planet. Lastly, at this moment, there is not a private company, nor another national government in the world that can perform some of the feats NASA pulls off.

  • nick

    If you’re doing everything perfectly, you’re not doing anything new.


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