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

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