Solar Sail Spacecraft, Feared Defunct, Finally Goes Into Action

By Eliza Strickland | January 24, 2011 10:29 am

Good news, solar sail enthusiasts: the NASA experimental spacecraft that was feared to be a dud sprang into life last week.

NanoSail-D was launched aboard a small satellite in December; once the satellite was in orbit the engineers back on Earth ordered the cargo door opened, and waited for NanoSail-D to pop out as planned. But the solar sail craft remained stubbornly inside the cargo bay. As weeks passed with no action, NASA’s hopes for the craft sunk.

But last Wednesday, NASA announced that NanoSail-D had spontaneously emerged.

“We knew that the door opened and it was possible that NanoSail-D could eject on its own,” Mark Boudreaux, FASTSAT project manager at the Marshall Center, said in a press release. “What a pleasant surprise this morning when our flight operations team confirmed that NanoSail-D is now a free flyer.” [CNN]

Once the 8.5-pound NanoSail-D popped out, it drifted away from its satellite for three days before unfurling its mirrored sail. (NASA confirmed the successful unfurling with help from ham radio operators, who tracked its radio signal.) Then the experimental craft began its mission: demonstrating that the force of the sun’s photons can propel a craft through space. NASA is particularly interested in using solar sails to propel defunct satellites back into the Earth’s atmosphere where they can burn up safely.

NanoSail-D will remain in Earth orbit for between 70 and 120 days, depending on atmospheric conditions. But solar sail fans already consider the mission a success.

“Congratulations! Although NanoSail-D kept us waiting, we’re very pleased that it has successfully deployed,” said Bill Nye, Executive Director of the Planetary Society, in a statement. “This could be the beginning of a fundamental improvement in how we de-orbit spacecraft.” The Planetary Society hopes to launch its own Lightsail-1 solar sail experiment. [USA Today]

Related Content:
80beats: Spacecraft AWOL: Where Is NASA’s New Solar Sail?
80beats: How Japan’s Success Reinvigorated Solar Sailing—and What Comes Next
80beats: Solar Sail Success! Japanese Spacecraft Propelled by the Sun’s Force
80beats: Spacecraft That Sails on Sunshine Aims for Lift-Off in 2010

Image: NASA

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math, Space
  • Matt B.

    I wonder if the sail’s problem could be that Earth-bound tests of the unfurling involved unnoticed vibrations that helped overcome static friction, whereas in space there would be no outside source for those vibrations. Total guess.

  • James Greenidge

    It’s rather sobering to me that all in the PC name of being eco/planet-friendly we’re tooling around with solar sails when we’d successfully tested nuclear space drives as far back as the 1960’s whose decendants today could’ve allowed a round trip to Mars anytime within a mere couple of months if not even less. In the sixties Project Rover forcasted utilizing nuclear drives to establish small bases on Mars in the late 1980’s and even manned Saturn fly-bys by 2000! Maybe it’ll take countries like China and India or Russia who aren’t so skittish about nuclear-energy to fulfill the potential of nuclear space drives. I’m pretty sure China would if they were up to speed on the concept.

  • templerman

    Well, The Outer Space Treaty says nothing about the use of nuclear power for spacecraft propulsion, so I guess it would be legal. The problem is that some people fear the fallout effect of a nuclear power generator in the event of an exploding rocket during launch. The use of solar sail tech is not much eco-friendly as it is cheaper and simpler to develop and use.

  • quasi44

    @ James and templerman ; You guys are missing the point of this craft. As we specialize and miniaturize, our need for large craft to do lots of small but important tasks will shrink to nearly nothing. This technology was about the capability of a compact launch vehicle deploying a microsatellite. The launch vehicle itself is what we’d typically call a microsatellite. The significance for orbital deployment of many smaller, light powered orbital platforms is that the price for these craft has now come down to the point that a typical small but specialized business can begin to take advantage of direct control and usage of space technologies. I’m going to start building myself one and getting my permission to fly it.

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