NASA’s tiny solar sail spacecraft, the Nanosail-D, has become the first solar vehicle to orbit the Earth. NanoSail-D was placed into orbit 400 miles above the planet by its ‘mother satellite’ the Fast, Affordable, Science and Technology SATellite (FASTSAT) last year. The vessel has proven that solar technology is suitable for space travel, and it is part of a plan to bring derelict satellites back to Earth.
Of course, the Nanosail-D has had some problems along the way — it actually spent the last month and a half stuck in FASTSAT. It was launched in November 2010 along with five other experiments, but when the moment came to launch Nanosail-D, it got stuck. A spring was supposed to push the breadbox-sized probe into an orbit of its own with room to unfurl a sail, but this failed to happen until this week when it spontaneously launched itself.
Speaking about the surprise launch, NanoSail-D principal investigator Dean Alhorn of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL. said, “I couldn’t believe my eyes. Our spacecraft was flying free!”
Nanosail-D will now circle the planet until it skims the atmosphere, allowing aerodynamic drag to eventually bring it down out of orbit. It will then burn up in the atmosphere. Nanosail-D is part of a whole new wave of solar satellites that includes Japan’s IKAROS project. Japan’s space program JAXA is planning on using solar sails to venture deeper into space — IKAROS has already passed Venus and a new mission is expected to sail a satellite by Jupiter later in the decade.