Solar sail unfurled in orbit

January 25, 2011

Artist's concept of a solar sail in Earth orbit (NASA)

NASA’s NanoSail-D spacecraft has become unstuck and has unfurled a gleaming sheet of space-age fabric 650 km above Earth, becoming the first-ever solar sail to circle our planet.

NanoSail-D spent the previous month and a half stuck inside its mothership, the Fast, Affordable, Science and Technology SATellite (FASTSAT). FASTSAT was launched in November 2010 with NanoSail-D and five other experiments onboard. High above Earth, 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.

NanoSail-D could pave the way for a future clean-up of low-Earth orbit. Drag sails might become standard issue on future satellites. When a satellite’s mission ends, it would deploy the sail and return to Earth via aerodynamic drag, harmlessly disintegrating in the atmosphere before it reaches the ground. Experts agree that something like this is required to prevent an exponential buildup of space junk around Earth.

Adapted from materials provided by NASA