First-ever solar sail a 'momentous achievement'

Jan 26, 2011 By Dr. Tony Phillips
An artist's concept of a solar sail in Earth orbit.

In an unexpected reversal of fortune, NASA's NanoSail-D spacecraft has unfurled a gleaming sheet of space-age fabric 650 km above Earth, becoming the first-ever solar sail to circle our planet.

"We're solar sailing!" says principal investigator Dean Alhorn of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL. "This is a momentous achievement."

NanoSail-D spent the previous month and a half stuck inside its mothership, the Fast, Affordable, Science and Technology SATellite (FASTSAT). FASTSAT was launched in November 2010 with NanoSail-D and five other experiments onboard. High above Earth, a spring was supposed to push the breadbox-sized probe into an orbit of its own with room to unfurl a sail. But when the big moment arrived, NanoSail-D got stuck.

"We couldn't get out of FASTSAT," says Alhorn. "It was heart-wrenching—yet another failure in the long and troubled history of solar sails."

Team members began to give up hope as weeks went by and NanoSail-D remained stubbornly and inexplicably onboard. The mission seemed to be over before it even began.

And then came Jan. 17th. For reasons engineers still don't fully understand, NanoSail-D spontaneously ejected itself. When Alhorn walked into the control room and saw the telemetry on the screen, he says "I couldn't believe my eyes. Our was flying free!"

The team quickly enlisted amateur radio enthusiasts Alan Sieg and Stan Sims at the Marshal Space Flight Center to try to pick up NanoSail-D's radio beacon.

"The timing could not have been better," says Sieg. "NanoSail-D was going to track right over Huntsville, and the chance to be the first ones to hear and decode the signal was irresistible."

Right before 5pm CST, they heard a faint signal. As the spacecraft soared overhead, the signal grew stronger and the operators were able to decode the first packet. NanoSail-D was alive and well.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
Click to listen to one of NanoSail-D's beacon packets recorded by radio amateur Henk Hamoen of the Netherlands.

"You could have scraped Dean off the ceiling. He was bouncing around like a new father," says Sieg.

The biggest moment, however, was still to come. NanoSail-D had to actually unfurl its sail. This happened on Jan. 20th at 9 pm CST.

Activated by an onboard timer, a wire burner cut the 50lb fishing line holding the spacecraft's panels closed; a second wire burner released the booms. Within seconds they unrolled, spreading a thin polymer sheet of reflective material into a 10 m2 sail.

Only one spacecraft has done anything like this before: Japan's IKAROS probe deployed a in interplanetary space and used it to fly by Venus in 2010. IKAROS is using the pressure of sunlight as its primary means of propulsion—a landmark achievement, which has encouraged JAXA to plan a follow-up solar sail mission to Jupiter later this decade.

NanoSail-D will remain closer to home. "Our mission is to circle Earth and investigate the possibility of using solar sails as a tool to de-orbit old satellites and space junk," explains Alhorn. "As the sail orbits our planet, it skims the top of our atmosphere and experiences aerodynamic drag. Eventually, this brings it down."

Indeed, mission planners expect NanoSail-D to return to Earth, meteor-style, in 70 to 120 days.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
The NanoSail-D team gathered around their sail after a successful laboratory deployment test

If this works, NanoSail-D could pave the way for a future clean-up of low-Earth orbit. Drag sails might become standard issue on future satellites. When a satellite's mission ends, it would deploy the sail and return to Earth via aerodynamic drag, harmlessly disintegrating in the atmosphere before it reaches the ground. Experts agree that something like this is required to prevent an exponential buildup of space junk around Earth.

Alhorn and colleagues will be monitoring NanoSail-D in the months ahead to see how its orbit decays. They'd also like to measure the pressure of sunlight on the sail, although atmospheric drag could overwhelm that effect.

No matter what happens next, NanoSail-D has already made history: It has demonstrated an elegant and inexpensive method for deploying sails and become the first sail to orbit Earth. Eventually, the team will diagnose the sail’s reluctance to leave FASTSAT—"and then we'll be batting a thousand," says Alhorn.

A follow-up story on Science@ will explain how sky watchers can track and photograph NanoSail-D before it returns to . Stay tuned for "Solar Sail Flares."

Explore further: Computer model shows moon's core surrounded by liquid and it's caused by Earth's gravity

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User comments : 13

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Simonsez
not rated yet Jan 26, 2011
Excellent news! Functional prototype means more funding, more progress, and science marches on.
Mercury_01
4.2 / 5 (5) Jan 26, 2011
too bad its not the "first ever solar sail" or a "momentous achievement"

"Only one spacecraft has done anything like this before: Japan's IKAROS probe deployed a solar sail in interplanetary space and used it to fly by Venus in 2010. IKAROS is using the pressure of sunlight as its primary means of propulsion—a landmark achievement, which has encouraged JAXA to plan a follow-up solar sail mission to Jupiter later this decade"
Quantum_Conundrum
3.3 / 5 (3) Jan 26, 2011
I don't know whether this should be labeled a "partial failure" or a "partial success".

Most of the mission appears to have been ruined by this accident, because it seems the thing is too low in orbit to really do any real tests of it's primary function.

The primary function of the solar sail is supposed to be deriving thrust from sunlight, not using atmospheric drag to slow itself down.

Besides, I'm far more interested in the ESA's electric solar sail than this peice of space junk seen here...
Modernmystic
4.3 / 5 (6) Jan 26, 2011
Project Orion would be a momentous achievement.
Quantum_Conundrum
3.4 / 5 (5) Jan 26, 2011
encouraged JAXA to plan a follow-up solar sail mission to Jupiter later this decade


Our own space agency has suffered from a lack of vision, and also from the fact that we(and the german scientists we stole rockets from...) invented all this stuff at cost to ourselves, and other nations have either reverse engineered our tech, or we flat out gave or sold it to them below cost. Now they spend all their R&D funds on next generation tech while we wasted so many hundred billions on the mostly pointless space shuttle program, which has done very little, if anything, to actually improve manned spaceflight, or any space flight.

The U.S. space program also suffers from a complete lack of any sense in our government finances any more.

Lastly and most important, we suffer from lack of vision and creativity. We're just doing the same old crap for 50 years...
lengould100
5 / 5 (1) Jan 26, 2011
I thought that Russia had done a fair bit of this quite a while ago.
panorama
not rated yet Jan 26, 2011
It would be neat if this proves to be an effective way of clearing space junk. Sail around, pick up junk, then have it burn up on re-entry or crash in to the ocean.

I agree with Mercury_01, how is this the first Solar Sail if they reference an earlier Solar Sail in the article? Poor Journalism?
Shootist
4 / 5 (4) Jan 26, 2011
Project Orion would be a momentous achievement.


Or even something as useful as 50 year old NERVA technology.
Quantum_Conundrum
3 / 5 (2) Jan 26, 2011
Or even something as useful as 50 year old NERVA technology.


For deep space probes, I thought of a 2 stage system to potentially obtain obscenely high velocities.

Stage 1 would be an electric solar sail, which is used for as long as possible. You'd use the solar sail until around 30A.u., because by here the ship is moving so fast and so far away that any more solar influence is too small to matter. This takes about 2 years to get to 30A.U. It'd be moving around 75km/s by then...

Then you would detach from the Solar Sail and use a nuclear powered VASIMIR of the largest scale you can possibly make.

The electric solar sail adds a HUGE amount of max acceleration with no propellant cost at all, effectively paying for it's own mass and the mass of the VASIMIR and the VASIMIR's propellant. Then you could get the probe up to max speeds of well over 125km/s, and possibly even a few hundred km/s, limited only by the amount of propellant you can bring along...
Walfy
not rated yet Jan 27, 2011
Why does the headline say "First-Ever"? Japan already did it last year, as stated in the article! Wake up, editors! Don't make this great website look lazy, which puts the stated facts in doubt.
sender
not rated yet Jan 27, 2011
Stringing a lot of these together could both yield a good platform for an orbital loop and magnetosphere concentration array ^_^
Mercury_01
1 / 5 (1) Jan 27, 2011
Why does the headline say "First-Ever"? Japan already did it last year, as stated in the article! Wake up, editors! Don't make this great website look lazy, which puts the stated facts in doubt.


Waaay too late for that, my brethren.

gvgoebel
not rated yet Jan 29, 2011
Aw c'mon people, it says "first ever solar sail to orbit the Earth" -- IKAROS went to Venus, and the article acknowledged that. Admittedly the qualification seems picky.

But not a "partial failure", although the ejection was late the FASTSAT spacecraft was in the same orbit as it was when it was to have originally ejected Nanosail-D. Nanosail-D was not primarily intended to demonstrate sail propulsion, simply to demonstrate a deorbiting system.