NASA’s Latest Solar Sail Spacecraft Will Be Visible from Earth Due to Its Brightness

Solar sails are a promising technology for powering small uncrewed spacecraft on exploratory missions of the solar system. These sails use the force of sunlight, or more specifically the photons emitted by the Sun, to generate thrust and propel the spacecraft forward. This propulsion system has been experimented with over the years, but none have reached full maturity or been used to power a fully functional spacecraft.

NASA has announced plans to launch a new type of solar sail, the Advanced Composite Solar Sail System (ACS3), which could revolutionize solar sailing technology. One of the main challenges in creating a solar sail is not the sail itself, but the booms used to deploy the sail once the spacecraft reaches space. Previous designs have been either heavy, metallic structures or lighter, bulkier ones that didn’t fold as expected.

The ACS3, however, promises a game-changing solution. It is comprised of twelve NanoAvionics CubeSats linked together with a boom made of flexible polymer and carbon fiber materials. These booms are both stiffer and lighter than previous versions, and have been designed as tubes that can be flattened and rolled like a tape measure. This design reduces bending and flexing during temperature changes, which the spacecraft will experience in space.

The ACS3 mission is scheduled to launch onboard a Rocket Lab Electron rocket from New Zealand later this month. The rocket will propel the CubeSat spacecraft to a Sun-synchronous orbit 600 miles above the Earth’s surface. Once in position, the ACS3 will deploy its booms to extend the sails, a process expected to take about 25 minutes. The result will be an ultra-thin reflective polymer solar sail with a surface area of 860 square feet, roughly the size of six parking spots.

According to NASA estimates, the sail could become as bright as the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, making it potentially visible from Earth. While the mission’s primary goal is to test the new booms and their deployment, NASA is confident that if successful, it could also test the effectiveness of the sail itself.

The potential benefits of solar sail technology are significant. By eliminating the need for heavy propulsion systems, solar sails could reduce mission costs and extend mission durations. Furthermore, the composite booms being developed for the sails could also be used on the Moon and Mars as part of future habitats. NASA believes that the boom design could be scaled up to deploy solar sails as large as a basketball court or, in some cases, even half a soccer field. This advancement in solar sail technology could open up new possibilities for solar system exploration.

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