June 10, 2024 at 12:20 pm

NASA Is Testing A New Solar Sail Technology That May Unlock The Future Of Space Propulsion

by Michael Levanduski

Source: NASA/Aero Animation/Ben Schweighart

Humans have always been fascinated with outer space.

It is remarkable to think that hasn’t even been 70-years since mankind was first able to send something into space (the Sputnik 1 satellite, which launched on October 4, 1957).

Since then we have made some astounding progress, but there are many challenges that still need to be overcome.

Perhaps the biggest obstacles are related to weight and propulsion.

It takes a lot of fuel to get anything up into space, and a lot more to get it moving in the right direction once there.

To hopefully address this issue, NASA is testing a new form of solar sail, which harnesses the pressure of radiation produced from sunlight to propel a spacecraft or other object in the desired direction.

Solar sails have been used in the past with some success, but this new design dubbed the “Advanced Composite Solar Sail System” (or ACS3 for short) may take this technology to the next level.

This new system has recently been launched into space for testing.

The ACS3 uses lightweight and compact materials that allow it to be launched into space much more efficiently. NASA released details about its impressive design.

“The solar sail is designed to fit inside a 12-unit (12U) CubeSat, which measures approximately 9 inches by 9 inches by 13 inches, or about the size of a small microwave oven.”

Source: NASA/AST&Defense LLC

One of the key advancements of this design is the booms that extend out of the device to support the sails. In the past, the booms were one of the heaviest parts of the system, which made it less efficient.

According to Keats Wilkie at NASA’s Langley Research Center:

“Booms have tended to be eitehr heavy and metallic or made of lightweight composite with a bulky design – neither of which work well for today’s small spacecraft. Solar sails need to be very large, stable, and lightweight booms that can fold down compactly.”

He went on to describe the booms used on the ACS3:

“This sail’s booms are tube-shaped and can be squished flat and rolled like a tape measure into a small package while offering all the advantages of composite materials, like less bending and flexing during temperature changes.”

Source: NASA

Once fully extended, the sails will be 860 square feet, which is sufficient to propel the small CubeSat in a Sun-synchronous orbit around 600 miles above Earth.

The CubeSat is equipped with a variety of cameras, sensors, and other tools that NASA can use to gather more information about how these sails are performing.

If this test is successful, NASA hopes to be able to use this technology to construct much larger solar sail systems that could propel satellites, sensor equipment, and even someday manned ships further out into space. NASA said of this technology:

The composite boom technology used for this ACS3 technology demonstration could be used in future missions for solar sails up to 500 square meters (5400 square feet), about the size of a basketball court. Follow-on composite boom technologies now in development will enable solar sails as large as 2000 square meters (21500 square feet).”

Having these large solar sails will allow NASA, and private space companies, to propel ships and other equipment to where it needs to be at a fraction of the cost of using chemical or electric-based propulsion systems.

It will be exciting to see what types of missions this new solar sail technology unlocks.

If you thought that was interesting, you might like to read about the mysterious “pyramids” discovered in Antarctica. What are they?