NASA said it plans to test the new solar sail technology in space in the middle of next year.
NASA’s Advanced Composite Solar Sailing System (ACS3) will deploy an apartment-sized solar sail from a toaster-sized cubic satellite in Earth orbit in mid-2022. The mission will enhance technology related to solar sails .
This type of sail has been used previously in space, most recently during the Planetary Society’s LightSail 2 mission, which has only been in orbit for more than two years. NASA officials wrote in a June 23 statement: “Like a sailboat powered by sails, solar sails use the pressure of sunlight to propel themselves, thus eliminating the need for traditional rocket propellants.”
Related: Solar Sails in Space: See the magnificent view of LightSail 2
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The data collected by the new mission will inform the design of future large-scale systems NASA added in its mission update that it can be used to search for asteroids, monitor solar activity, or power the communications system of deep space astronauts.
ACS3 has been actively developed since 2018. In 2020, NASA selected NanoAvionics to build the satellite bus; the contract amount was not disclosed in the contract press release. NanoAvionics is a branch of the Vilnius University team that built a satellite, LituanicaSAT1, which transmitted the first Lithuanian message from space in 2014. The
new mission will demonstrate the deployment of the “composite plume” solar sail, showing its light weight. NASA said that durable materials can save quality, thereby saving the cost of launching future missions. The fully deployed square sail will be supported by four arms with a span of approximately 30 feet (9 meters) on each side.
Although the ACS3 solar sail is relatively small, NASA says the same composite boom technology can support a sail the size of a basketball court, or 5,400 square feet (500 square meters). For this reason, compound arm technology will become the focus of the task.
An artist’s rendering of a solar sail orbiting the earth.
An artist’s rendering of a solar sail orbiting the earth. (Image Source: NASA) The
Deployable Composite Boom stems from a project at NASA’s Langley Research Center, which is studying how to deploy large systems, including solar sails on small satellites. NASA said the arm is made of carbon fiber-reinforced polymeric materials, making it 75% lighter than standard metal arms and less susceptible to warping caused by heat. The mission will be the first use of composite barriers, sail packing and deployment systems on the runway.
“This composite material can be rolled up for compact load, but remains strong and light when deployed,” NASA said. The agency added that the deployment system will include an “innovative spindle-arm removal system” designed to minimize the risk of paper jams.
Although solar sail technology is still in its infancy, potential benefits include a longer mission life, because chemical and electrical propulsion systems are limited by the amount of fuel available, NASA said. The mission manager will also describe the role of thrust on the sail as the spacecraft changes orbit, preparing for the mission to be further from earth.