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First Solar Sail NanoSail-D Deploys in Low-Earth Orbit

Engineers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., confirmed that the NanoSail-D nanosatellite deployed its 100-square-foot polymer sail in low-Earth orbit and is operating as planned. Actual deployment occurred on Jan. 20 at 10 p.m. EST and was confirmed today with beacon packets data received from NanoSail-D and additional ground-based satellite tracking assets. In addition, the NanoSail-D orbital parameter data set shows an appropriate change which is consistent with sail deployment.

“This is tremendous news and the first time NASA has deployed a solar sail in low-Earth orbit,” said Dean Alhorn, NanoSail-D principal investigator and aerospace engineer at the Marshall Center. “To get to this point is an incredible accomplishment for our small team and I can’t thank the amateur ham operator community enough for their help in tracking NanoSail-D. Their assistance was invaluable. In particular, the Marshall Amateur Radio Club was the very first to hear the radio beacon. It was exciting!”

NanoSail-D will continue to send out beacon signals until the onboard batteries are expended and can be found at 437.270 MHz. It can be tracked on the NanoSail-D dashboard at: http://nanosaild.engr.scu.edu/dashboard.htm.

It is estimated that NanoSail-D will remain in low-Earth orbit between 70 and [...]

Sailing Among the Stars

Copyright NASA

This fall, NASA researchers will move one step closer to sailing among the stars.

Astrophysicists and engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and the Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., have designed and built NanoSail-D, a “solar sail” that will test NASA’s ability to deploy a massive but fragile spacecraft from an extremely compact structure. Much like the wind pushing a sailboat through water, solar sails rely on sunlight to propel vehicles through space. The sail captures constantly streaming solar particles, called photons, with giant sails built from a lightweight material. Over time, the buildup of these particles provides enough thrust for a small spacecraft to travel in space.

Many scientists believe that solar sails have enormous potential. Because they take advantage of sunlight, they don’t require the chemical fuel that spacecraft currently rely on for propulsion. Less fuel translates into lower launch weight, lower costs and fewer logistical challenges. Solar sails accelerate slowly but surely, capable of eventually reaching tremendous speeds. In fact, most scientists consider solar sailing the only reasonable way to make interstellar travel a reality.

Of course, it’s not as easy as it sounds.

For scientists to really [...]