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Solar Energy News

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NASA’s NanoSail-D finally deployed this week. It’s now taken its place in the spotlight as the first ever orbital solar sail. And it’s finally ready for your photos.

Solar sails harness solar power to provide propulsion rather than using other methods, like rockets. While the theory behind solar sails has been around for a while, NanoSail-D is only the second solar sail ever deployed. Last year, Japan’s space agency launched the first solar sail, dubbed IKAROS.

While solar sails don’t provide the rapid propulsion that rockets and jets do, they provide long-term stable speed increases, said NanoSail-D principal investigator Dean Alhorn said.

“The best way to put it is to look at the Voyager,” he said. “It took about 30 years to get where it’s at. We believe a solar sail could do that in about 10 years.”

To celebrate the launch and to help with data collection, NASA partnered with Spaceweather.com on a photo contest to catch the best image of the 100 square-foot solar sail before it returns to Earth’s atmosphere in April or May.

“NASA is always looking for ways to engage the public and amateur astronomer communities to raise awareness of NASA's involvement in space research and exploration,” Alhorn said.

The winner of the contest will receive $500. Cash prizes will also be given to the second ($200) and third ($100) best images.

“NASA will use any validated photos of NanoSail-D received as part of the analysis for contributing to the research objectives of the NanoSail-D satellite,” Alhorn said.

The data from the photos could be valuable to NASA.

“Depending upon the photographs obtained, we might be able to determine if NanoSail-D is tumbling or in a flat spin,” he said. “The NanoSail-D project was developed on a very low-cost budget, and the public will help us obtain images that will aid in our study of the nanosatellite while it is in low-Earth orbit.”

Apparently the solar sail was camera shy at first. NanoSail was launched as part of the payload of NASA’s FASTSAT microsatellite. The command was given for the NanoSail-D to launch on Dec. 6—and then nothing happened.

That is, until Jan. 21, when it ejected from FASTSAT.

“We may never establish the reason for the delayed NanoSail-D ejection, but this is a one-of-a-kind first experiment, which cannot be recovered from orbit to examine,” he said. That being said, the agency is investigating the first failed attempt. “Our NASA engineering team is still in the process of collecting data from many sources and evaluating the possible reasons for the delay of the NanoSail-D ejection.”

Despite its deployed size of 100 square feet, the nanosatellite was physically small. While still packed, it was roughly the size of a loaf of bread. As such, it only had eight lithium ion batteries onboard, with no capability to recharge, Alhorn explained.

“NanoSail-D was designed to perform all operational functions requiring power after ejection within this 8 amp-hour capability and was expected to have available 12-36 hrs of additional power after the sail deployment,” he said.

Despite the belated launch, NanoSail-D is still on course, and NASA is happy with the results thus far.

“We are all very excited by the NanoSail-D ejection and sail deployment and are looking forward to continuing the mission for this first of a kind experiment,” he said.

He added that NASA will use the lessons learned from this experiment in future solar sail experiments.

Image courtesy of NASA.