Solar sail successfully unfurled in orbit

NASA’s NanoSail-D spacecraft is no longer gummed up … it has unfurled a gleaming sheet of space-age fabric 650 km above Earth, and so now we have a solar sail successfully in orbit around our planet.

A what?

OK, I better clarify. A solar Sail is where they use the radiation pressure of light from a star (our sun in this case) or a laser to push enormous ultra-thin mirrors to high speeds. The idea dates back to n 1924 when the Russian space engineer Friedrich Zander proposed that, since light provides a small amount of thrust, this effect could be used as a form of space propulsion requiring no fuel …and now NASA finally have one in orbit.

NanoSail-D spent the previous month and a half stuck inside its mothership, the Fast, Affordable, Science and Technology SATellite (FASTSAT), so there has been a bit of concern if we would even get this far. The problem was that 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. Well, the good news is thats its all sorted now … nobody actually knows why, it just sort of popped out.

So what possible value can this be? The thinking here is that NanoSail-D could pave the way for a clean-up of low-Earth orbit. These sails might become standard issue, so when a satellite needs to be junked, you simply deploy the sail and use that to return it to Earth via aerodynamic drag.

Anyway … now that its up, NASA has formed a partnership with to engage the amateur astronomy community …

To encourage observations of NanoSail-D, is offering prizes for the best images of this historic, pioneering spacecraft. The contest is open to all types of images, including, but not limited to, telescopic captures of the sail to simple wide-field camera shots of solar sail flares. If NanoSail-D is in the field of view, the image is eligible for judging.

To learn more about the NanoSail-D imaging challenge and contest rules, satellite tracking predictions and sighting times, visit:

OK … honesty time … while its NASA’s first solar sail, its not the first ever. Back in 2010 Japan’s IKAROS probe deployed a solar sail in interplanetary space and is using it to fly to Venus. The name IKAROS is composed as follows … Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun. In fact, its this probes primary means of propulsion—a landmark achievement, which has encouraged JAXA to plan a follow-up solar sail mission to Jupiter later this decade. Once it has gone past Venus, IKAROS will continue out on a three-year journey to the far side of the Sun. Of course, I can’t help be ponder the thought that those of us who stay here on earth will manage to reach the far side of the sun in … oh … let me think now (gets calculator out) .. in about half a year perhaps.

You can read more here about NanoSail-D

You can read more here about IKAROS

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: