Good news, solar sail enthusiasts: the NASA experimental spacecraft that was feared to be a dud sprang into life last week. NanoSail-D was launched aboard a small satellite in December; once the satellite was in orbit the engineers back on Earth ordered the cargo door opened, and waited for NanoSail-D to pop out as planned. But the solar sail craft remained stubbornly inside the cargo bay. As weeks passed with no action, NASA's hopes for the craft sunk. But last Wednesday, NASA announced that NanoSail-D had spontaneously emerged.
"We knew that the door opened and it was possible that NanoSail-D could eject on its own," Mark Boudreaux, FASTSAT project manager at the Marshall Center, said in a press release. "What a pleasant surprise this morning when our flight operations team confirmed that NanoSail-D is now a free flyer." [CNN]
Once the 8.5-pound NanoSail-D popped out, it drifted away from its satellite for three days before unfurling its mirrored sail. (NASA confirmed
the successful unfurling with help from ham radio operators, who tracked its radio signal.) Then the experimental craft began its mission: demonstrating that the force of the sun's photons can propel a craft through space. NASA is particularly interested in using solar sails to propel defunct satellites back into the Earth's atmosphere where they can burn up safely. NanoSail-D will remain in Earth orbit for between 70 and 120 days, depending on atmospheric conditions. But solar sail fans already consider the mission a success.
"Congratulations! Although NanoSail-D kept us waiting, we're very pleased that it has successfully deployed," said Bill Nye, Executive Director of the Planetary Society, in a statement. "This could be the beginning of a fundamental improvement in how we de-orbit spacecraft." The Planetary Society hopes to launch its own Lightsail-1 solar sail experiment. [USA Today]
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