Sailing into space

This summer, NASA will propel a satellite the size of a loaf of bread through space with an ultra-thin, 100-square-foot sail called NanoSail-D.

This summer, NASA plans to propel a satellite the size of a loaf of bread through space with an ultra-thin, 100-square-foot sail called NanoSail-D.

Developed and constructed in just six months as the result of a partnership between Marshall Space Flight Center and Ames Research Center, NASA will ride the sail into space on an upcoming flight of the new Falcon 1 launch vehicle developed by Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, California. The launch is scheduled for take place from Omelek Island in the Pacific Ocean.

Once in space, a Poly Picosatellite Orbital Deployer, or P-POD, developed at the University of California Polytechnic Institute, will be used to deploy the sail.

‘NanoSail-D will be the first fully deployed solar sail in space, and the first spacecraft to use solar pressure as a primary means of attitude control or orbital maneuvering,’ said Edward Montgomery, who works at Marshall Space Flight Center as the NanoSail-D’s payload manager.

A few years ago, the Planetary Society attempted a mission like NanoSail-D called Cosmos I, but the launch vehicle failed and destroyed the undeployed spacecraft. Montgomery and his team are hopeful that the NanoSail-D, however, will not suffer the same fate and will unfurl four gossamer wings from its pod like a butterfly from a cocoon.

There is an important benefit that the new form of propulsion brings with it. ‘The Voyagers have escaped the solar system, and they were sent by rockets, but it’s taken more than three decades to do it. A solar sail launched today would probably catch up with them in a single decade,’ said Montgomery.

And there’s an added bonus to the technology too. Currently, micro-satellites in orbit above a few hundred kilometres can stay in orbit for decades after completing their missions, and are at risk of colliding with other spacecraft.

‘NanoSail-D will demonstrate the feasibility of using a drag sail to decrease the time satellites clutter up Earth’s orbit. Although our sail looks like a kite, it will act like a drag sail in the very thin upper atmosphere around Earth. It will slow the spacecraft and make it lose altitude, re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and burn off in a relatively short period of time,’ added Montgomery.

From launch to re-entry, the NanoSail-D flight is anticipated to last under two weeks.

The Huntsville-based NanoSail-D team stands with the fully deployed sail at ManTech SRS technologies after a successful deployment test