This year Inhabitat brought you the Japanese space agency’s successful deployment and use of a solar sail to propel its spacecraft Ikaros, and now NASA announced plans this week for its own solar sail mission. This fall it will launch the NanoSail-D into orbit 400 miles up with a Minotaur IV rocket. Once deployed, it will orbit for 17 weeks, proving the technology and allowing astronomers to snap lots of photos.
Unlike the Japan’s 3,000-square foot sail, the NanoSail will be just 100 square feet; neither is thicker than a piece of single-ply tissue paper. The sail won’t be tasked with propelling the FASTSAT satellite to which it will be attached. NASA is, rather, testing the deployment mechanism. Unravelling something so big and so thin in a zero gravity environment is no small feat.
The NanoSail will launch wrapped around a spindle in a container smaller than a bread box. The sail’s principal investigator Dean Alhorn explained: “The deployment works in the exact opposite way of carpenter’s measuring tape. With a measuring tape, you pull it out, which winds up a spring, and when you let it go it is quickly pulled back in. With NanoSail-D, we wind up the booms around the center spindle. Those wound-up booms act like the spring.”
NASA has been playing catch-up with the Japanese in this important new technology. In 2008, engineers were given just four months to devise a solar sail. They pulled it off, but the rocket carrying the sail experienced launch failure. Since then, Alhorn and his team have been improving on the hastily-put-together version 1.0. Indeed, they are already at work on FeatherSail — version 3.0.
After the NanoSail’s 17-week stint in the air, it will be “de-orbited,” and NASA will be watching the process to learn more about how best to bring older satellites out of space rather than allowing them to become that much more space junk.