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Posted on May 7th, 2024

Out of This World – Setting Sail on Solar Winds

What would you do if you could sail through the vast unknown wonders of outer space? NASA’s Next Generation Solar Sail Boom Technology is ready to do just that in April. What was once only possible in the realm of science fiction is now a reality thanks to a next-generation solar sail technology referred to as the Advanced Composite Solar Sail System. 

The mission is set to launch from the Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket in Mahia, New Zealand. The technology could offer great advancements in upcoming space travel and increase our understanding of the Sun and solar system. Solar Sails rely on the sunlight’s pressure to propel them by changing the angle of the sail towards or away from the sun. The angle is adjusted so the reflective surface of the sail will bounce photons off the sail and push the spacecraft forward.

NASA’s Advanced Composite Solar Sail System will push the boundaries of space travel. (Credit: NASA)

The primary objective of the mission is to successfully demonstrate new boom deployment and prove the sail’s performance. The mission’s primary investigator, Keats Wilkie at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, stated the previously used booms were made of heavy material or bulky lightweight composite, which would not work on today’s smaller spacecraft. This means the solar sails need be folded to then deploy large, stable, and lightweight booms.

When it reaches its Sun-synchronous orbit of about 600 miles, the booms will unroll from the spacecraft. The solar sail will fully deploy less than 30 minutes later and measure about 860 square feet, which is about the size of six parking spots. Cameras mounted on the spacecraft will capture the moment and monitor its symmetry and shape during deployment.

Solar sails will remove the need for heavier propulsion systems, which in turn leads to longer mission durations and lowered emissions costs. The Advanced Composite Solar Sail System uses a twelve-unit (12U) CubeSat, which was built by NanoAvionics, to test a new composite boom made from carbon fiber materials and polymers, which are stiffer and lighter than the previous boom’s materials.

The design of the boom could potentially lead to larger solar sails, as big as 5400 square feet, which is about the size of a basketball court. Successful deployment and operation of the solar sail’s composite booms will prove the capability and allow for large-scale missions to Mars, the Moon, and beyond.

Katie Nelson
Geospatial Ninja
(303) 718-7163

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