NASA Looks to Commercialize Solar Sail Technology

A concept image of the Near-Earth Asteroid Scout mission, one of 11 missions that will be secondary payloads to the first test flight of NASA's Space Launch System. (Credit: NASA)
A concept image of the Near-Earth Asteroid Scout mission, one of 11 missions that will be secondary payloads to the first test flight of NASA’s Space Launch System. (Credit: NASA)

NASA CubeSat-Scale Solar Sail for Space Propulsion
Solicitation Number: NNM16042116
Agency: National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Office: Marshall Space Flight Center
Location: Office of Procurement

Introduction

A cubesat-scale solar sail propulsion system is being developed at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center to provide propulsion for a 6U interplanetary CubeSat to be used for the Near Earth Asteroid Scout (NEAS) project. NASA MSFC desires for the solar sail technology and design being developed for the NEAS mission to be commercially available after the completion and delivery of the flight system hardware in 2018. To further that goal, NASA MSFC seeks to provide the solar sail propulsion system design to interested commercial entities. It is anticipated that there may be follow-on missions using the NEA Scout sail system following successful completion of the NEA Scout project.

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Watch NEA Scout Solar Sail Unfold

Video Caption: In this time lapse, the Near-Earth Asteroid Scout (NEA Scout) CubeSat team rolls a half-scale prototype of the small satellite’s solar sail in preparation for a deployment test. During its mission, NEA Scout will perform an approximate two-year cruise propelled by the solar sail to a target asteroid. A camera on the CubeSat will capture a series of low (50 cm/pixels) and high resolution (10 cm/pixels) images to determine global shape, spin rate, pole position, regional morphology, regolith properties, spectral class, and for local environment characterization.

LightSail Deploys Solar Sail

PASADENA, Calif., June 7, 2015 (Planetary Society PR) — After 19 days on orbit, data indicate that The Planetary Society’s LightSail™ spacecraft deployed its Mylar® solar sail in space. More information will be downloaded, analyzed and publicized in days to come, including possible images. A post-deployment press conference will occur following an initial data analysis period.

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LightSail Falls Silent Again as Battery Problem Suspected

The Planetary Society's LightSail-1 solar sailing spacecraft is scheduled to ride a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket to orbit in 2016 with its parent satellite, Prox-1. (Credit: Josh Spradling / The Planetary Society)
The Planetary Society’s LightSail-1 solar sailing spacecraft is scheduled to ride a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket to orbit in 2016 with its parent satellite, Prox-1. (Credit: Josh Spradling / The Planetary Society)

UPDATE: Ground controllers have received data packets from the satellite. They’re now analyzing them and planning their next move, which could be deployment of the solar sail.

It’s not looking good again for The Planetary Society’s LightSail spacecraft. After losing communications with the ground and then regaining it, the experimental CubeSat again fell silent after what appeared to be the successful deployment of its solar panels.

In an e-mail summary sent this afternoon, mission manager David Spencer said before contact was lost, LightSail’s batteries did not appear to be drawing current from the solar arrays; nor were they properly shunting power to the spacecraft’s subsystems.

“Following solar panel deployment,” he wrote, “it was noticed that all of the battery cells were drawing near zero current. This indicated that the batteries were likely in a fault condition stemming from the solar panel deployment event.”

Unless controllers can get the spacecraft online, it will not be possible to deploy the spacecraft’s solar sail.

ESA Exploring Ways to Remove Spacecraft From Orbit

Four-quadrant solar sail attached to Earth-orbiting satellite, which could speed up the deorbiting process for future missions. (Credit: NASA)
Four-quadrant solar sail attached to Earth-orbiting satellite, which could speed up the deorbiting process for future missions. (Credit: NASA)

NOORDWIJK, The Netherlands (ESA PR) — It takes a lot of ingenuity – not to mention a massive quantity of sheer force – to get satellites into orbit. Now space engineers are applying comparable ingenuity to the challenge of getting their missions out of there, too.

ESA, working closely with Europe’s satellite builders, will ask industry for new designs to help remove satellites from orbit at the end of their working lives, as well as ‘passivating’ them – making them safer for neighbouring missions.

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Planetary Society’s LightSail Spacecraft Arrives at Cape

The Planetary Society's LightSail-1 solar sailing spacecraft is scheduled to ride a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket to orbit in 2016 with its parent satellite, Prox-1. (Credit: Josh Spradling / The Planetary Society)
The Planetary Society’s LightSail-1 solar sailing spacecraft is scheduled to ride a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket to orbit in 2016 with its parent satellite, Prox-1. (Credit: Josh Spradling / The Planetary Society)

PASADENA, Calif., March 9, 2015 (Planetary Society PR) – The Planetary Society’s privately funded LightSail spacecraft has arrived in Cape Canaveral, Fla., where it will be integrated with an Atlas V rocket scheduled to launch no earlier than May 6. The spacecraft is part of a secondary payload dubbed ULTRASat, which will fly aboard the U.S. Air Force mission AFSPC-5.

Bill Nye (The Science Guy), CEO at The Planetary Society, issued the following statement:

Our LightSail cubesat passed every one of its tests and has been loaded into its launcher mechanism. I’m naturally happy and excited, but I admit, a bit nervous. We’ve been working to get a solar sail into space since I joined The Planetary Society Board in 1997. It’s quite a milestone. Deep breath, no turning back now, this baby’s on its own now. Here we go…

For complete coverage of the LightSail test flight, as well as the second LightSail mission scheduled for 2016, visit sail.planetary.org.

Previous LightSail press release: January 26, 2015

About the Planetary Society

Celebrating 35 years, The Planetary Society has inspired millions of people to explore other worlds and seek other life. With the mission to empower the world’s citizens to advance space science and exploration, its international membership makes the non-governmental Planetary Society the largest space interest group in the world. Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray and Louis Friedman founded the Planetary Society in 1980. Bill Nye, a longtime member of the Planetary Society’s Board, serves as CEO.

Planetary Society Announces May Flight Test for LightSail Spacecraft

The Planetary Society's LightSail-1 solar sailing spacecraft is scheduled to ride a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket to orbit in 2016 with its parent satellite, Prox-1. (Credit: Josh Spradling / The Planetary Society)
The Planetary Society’s LightSail-1 solar sailing spacecraft is scheduled to ride a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket to orbit in 2016 with its parent satellite, Prox-1. (Credit: Josh Spradling / The Planetary Society)

PASADENA, CA (Planetary Society PR) – The Planetary Society today announced the first of its LightSail spacecraft will embark on a May 2015 test flight. Funded entirely by private citizens, the solar sail satellite will hitch a ride to space aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The mission will test LightSail’s critical functions, a precursor to a second mission slated for 2016. That second flight will mark the first controlled, Earth-orbit solar sail flight and ride along with the first operational launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket.

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NASA Cancels Troubled Sunjammer Solar Sail Project

Sunjammer solar sail
Sunjammer solar sail

Space News reports that NASA has canceled the Sunjammer solar sail mission:

Citing a lack of confidence in its contractor’s ability to deliver, NASA has abandoned plans to fly a solar-sail mission in 2015 after investing four years and more than $21 million on the project.

The Sunjammer mission, including the spacecraft and a deployable 1,200-square-meter solar sail, was being developed by L’Garde Inc. of Tustin, California, under a contract awarded in September 2011. The contract is slated to expire this coming December, and NASA has no plans to continue the work, according to an internal memo circulated at NASA headquarters here the week of Oct. 7.

“NASA is working with L’Garde to de-scope the existing contract to close out the documentation and deliver completed work to the Agency by the end of 2014,” the memo reads….

Nathan Barnes, president of L’Garde, said in an Oct. 17 phone interview that the company’s final delivery to NASA will be a design for a spacecraft module and solar sail that in theory could propel a small spacecraft by harnessing the energy of photon strikes. L’Garde will turn over its design in a Critical Design Audit scheduled for Nov. 7, he said.

Read the full story.

ESA Developing Solar Sail to Safely Deorbit Satellites

Gossamer deorbit sail. (Credit: University of Surrey)
Gossamer deorbit sail. (Credit: University of Surrey)

PARIS (ESA PR) — When satellites reach the end of their working lives, they may pose a threat to other spacecraft as they continue to orbit in a dormant state for many decades. But now a new way to deorbit ageing satellites in a safe manner is nearing its first test in space.

In the future, satellites might carry a packaged ultra-lightweight ‘gossamer sail’ to open as they head towards retirement. The increased aerodynamic drag would pull the craft out of orbit to burn up in the high atmosphere, reducing the risk of catastrophic collisions and creating a sustainable space environment for future generations.

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Sunjammer Mission Expands Education Effort

Sunjammer Mission Educatin Director Bryan Weber talks to students about the program. (Credit: Sunjammer Mission)
Sunjammer Mission Education Director Bryan Weber talks to students about the program. (Credit: Sunjammer Mission)

Tustin, Calif. (Sunjammer Mission PR) — Twelve students from Palm Middle School in Moreno Valley, Calif., joined the engineers and scientists at L’Garde, Inc. to present on solar sails and learn about NASA’s Sunjammer mission as part of its new Learning Center initiative, a program to engage students worldwide in the future of space travel.

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Sunjammer Completes Successful Deployment Test

Sunjammer deployment test.
Sunjammer deployment test.

Tustin, CA (Sunjammer Mission PR) — NASA officials, team partners, and local students were on hand to witness a key milestone for the Sunjammer Mission as it successfully deployed a quadrant of its solar sail – a critical design component that will eventually herald an era of propellantless spacecraft. Sunjammer will be the largest solar sail ever flown using photonic pressure (or sunlight) to maneuver in space.

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NASA Sunjammer Solar Sail Set for Launch Next Year

sunjammer
Sunjammer solar sail. (Credit: L’Garde)

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — The concept of a huge, ultra-thin sail unfurling in space, using the pressure of sunlight to provide propellant-free transport, hovering and exploration capabilities, may seem like the stuff of science fiction, but a NASA research team developing the Technology Demonstration Mission known as Sunjammer (a.k.a., In-Space Demonstration of a Mission-Capable Solar Sail) intend to prove the viability and value of the technology in 2014.

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NanoSail-D Completes Mission

NanoSail-D (Credit: NASA)

NASA PR — After spending more than 240 days “sailing” around the Earth, NASA’s NanoSail-D — a nanosatellite that deployed NASA’s first-ever solar sail in low-Earth orbit — has successfully completed its Earth orbiting mission.

Launched to space Nov. 19, 2010 as a payload on NASA’s FASTSAT, a small satellite, NanoSail-D’s sail deployed on Jan. 20.

The flight phase of the mission successfully demonstrated a deorbit capability that could potentially be used to bring down decommissioned satellites and space debris by re-entering and totally burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere. The team continues to analyze the orbital data to determine how future satellites can use this new technology.

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