NASA will deploy an 80-square-meter solar sail from a cube the size of a microwave

NASA hitched a ride aboard Rocket Lab's Electron Launcher in New Zealand yesterday eveningand is preparing to test a new, highly advanced solar sail design. Now in a sun-synchronous orbit, about 900 kilometers above Earth, the agency's Advanced composite sun sail system (ACS3) will deploy and demonstrate technology in the coming weeks that could one day power deep space missions without the need for actual rocket fuel, post-launch.

The fundamentals behind solar sails are not up for debate. By absorbing the pressure of solar energy, thin plates can propel a spacecraft at enormous speeds, similar to a sailboat. Engineers have demonstrated the principles before, but NASA's new project will specifically demonstrate a promising boom design constructed from flexible composite polymer materials reinforced with carbon fiber.

Although supplied in a toaster-sized package, ACS3 takes less than 30 minutes to unfold into an 80-square-metre sheet of ultra-thin plastic, anchored by its four associated 6-metre-long booms. Once deployed, these poles function as sailboat booms and keep the sail taut enough to capture solar energy.

[Related: How tiny spacecraft could ‘sail’ to Mars surprisingly quickly.]

But what makes the ACS3 booms so special is how they are stored. The boom system of any solar sail must remain stiff enough during severe temperature fluctuations, and also be durable enough to withstand long missions. Scaled-up solar sails will be quite large, however: NASA is currently planning future designs as large as 5,400 square meters, or about the size of a basketball court. These sails require extremely long boom systems that won't necessarily fit into a rocket's cargo bay.

To solve this, NASA rolled up its new composite material trees into a package about the size of an envelope. Once complete, engineers will use an extraction system similar to a tape spool to unwind the booms, intended to minimize potential snagging. Once in place, they will anchor the microscopically thin solar sail while onboard cameras record the entire process.

NASA hopes the project will allow them to evaluate their new solar sail design while measuring how the resulting thrust affects the small spacecraft's low orbit. Meanwhile, engineers will assess the resilience of their new composite booms, which are 75 percent lighter and designed to provide 100 times less shape distortion than any previous solar sail boom prototype.

However, don't expect the ACS3 experiment to fly into space. After a estimated first flight of two months and the subsystem testing phase, ACS3 will conduct a week-long test of its ability to raise and lower the CubeSate's orbit. It's a lot of work to harness a solar power that NASA says is equal to the weight of a paperclip in your palm. But if ACS3's sail and boom system is successful, it could lead to the design being scaled up enough to travel across the solar system.

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