NASA's New Solar Sail Could Change Spaceflight Forever

NASA's new solar sail might pave the cosmic way to even bigger sails to carry missions into deep, interplanetary space.
Brad Bergan

NASA chose NanoAvionics to build a 12U nanosatellite bus, which will carry NASA's new Advanced Composite Solar Sail System (ACS3), according to a Thursday press release. If it deploys without mishaps in low-Earth orbit, it may open the door for even larger solar sail missions in the future.


NASA's new solar sail, with a basis in science fiction

Solar sailing as a term was first coined by the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke in a 1964 short story called "Sunjammer." In his story, he detailed a means of powering small-scale spacecraft without expending expensive rocket propellant. Instead of conventional fuel, solar sails use large, mirror-like sails that transform the power of the sun into sustainable velocity, reports Popular Mechanics.

The product of a contract between NASA and Ames Research Center and AST, NanoAvianics' 12U bus will carry the agency's payload into low Earth orbit (LEO), along with a roughly 74 square meter (800 square foot) composite boom and solar sail system.

The forthcoming ACS3 mission will work to replace rocket propellants by developing and testing newly-designed solar sails using sunlight beams to give the nanosatellite velocity.

NanoAvionics NASA mission
The mission patch is mesmerizing. Source: NanoAvionics / NASA

These novel propulsion systems are the future standard for small interplanetary spacecraft intended for ultra-low-cost missions into deep-space, and science missions with long-duration, low-thrust propulsion.

The Breakthrough Starshot project, headed by Israeli-Russian Yuri Milner, could one day use sails developed during this program.

With more than 75 successful satellite missions and related commercial projects, NanoAvionics will construct the 12Ubuswithin its new Columbia facility in Illinois, to be finally integrated with the full payload at NASA Ames facilities.

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"I'm tremendously proud and excited that NanoAvionics will be part of NASA's effort to validate a new beam-powered propulsion system, eventually leading to more marvelous deep-space missions following the first inter-planetary CubeSats MarCO-A and B (Mars Cube One)," said CEO NanoAvionics North America F. Brent Abbott. "The technology demonstration using NanoAvionics' 12U bus will be the first ever in-orbit trial of NASA's composite booms as well as sail packing and deployment systems for a solar sail. It will guide the development of a next generation nanosatellites (sic) with solar sail propulsion system for small inter-planetary spacecraft."

With the Artemis mission to return humans to the moon only one presidential term away, it's beginning to feel like NASA is gearing up for the grandest sojourn into space in decades.


Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article made reference to the Breakthrough Starshot Project, but neglected to mention the name of Yuri Milner, head of the project. His name has since been added. IE regrets this error.