NASA Launches First-Ever Solar Sail

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"Spacecrafts no longer require heavy fuel for inter-star excursions."

solar sail NASA

For the last month and a half the NASA's NanoSail-D spacecraft has been held captive in its mother ship, but it has now been let free to spread its wings. Created to be the best way to propel spacecrafts between stars, a press release stated that Solar sails, gossamer-thin sheets, feel the pressure of the solar wind. Thus, they no longer requiring heavy fuel for the excursion.

Solar sails, however, do not have that great of a track record. In fact, only one solar sail in history has ever worked: the Japanese IKAROS spacecraft, in which launched in 2009 and flew past Venus in 2010. Even if engineers were not ready to dispense the NanoSail- D it appears it was ready, as it ejected itself on Jan. 17.

Three days later, on Jan. 20, the free-flying spacecraft unleashed its silvery sail. An onboard timer in turn activated a wire burner, which cut a 50-pound fishing line holding the spacecraft's panels closed. Within seconds, the thin polymer sheet unrolled into a sail 10 square meters in area, a press release announced.

"This is tremendous news and the first time NASA has deployed a solar sail in low-Earth orbit," said NASA engineer Dean Alhorn in a press release. "To get to this point is an incredible accomplishment for our small team."

NanoSail-D was initially engineered with one specific task in mind- clean up space junk. As the sail orbits, it works like a pool skimmer on top of the atmosphere. If it is effective in cleaning up the clutter in low-Earth orbit, drag sails might in fact become a standard issue on future satellites, a press release revealed.

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