November 19, 2010
Update: Successful launch! Follow the mission’s progress on Twitter.
In this season of solar sailing (Japan’s IKAROS is still going strong), another ship is about to leave the harbor.
NASA’s modest solar sail demonstrator, Nanosail-D, is due to launch tonight on a Minotaur 4 rocket from Alaska. You can watch Spaceflight Now’s live feed from the Kodiak Launch Complex. Liftoff is scheduled for 8:24 p.m. Eastern time.
Nanosail-D is just one of more than a dozen experiments and technology demos onboard the Minotaur, and will be NASA’s first orbital deployment of a solar sail.
It’s more an experiment in packaging than propulsion. The Nanosail engineers want to see if the sail can deploy cleanly from its shoebox-size container. If it does, it won’t do much actual sailing; there’s still enough atmosphere in its low orbit to exert drag on the thin material.
Read about the project here. This video shows how the sail will unfold:
October 28, 2010
Now this is a charming idea, and maybe a handy one too – fleets of solar sails delivering pictures of distant worlds back to the home planet.
Data is a valuable commodity in the Information Age, just as spices and silk were in centuries past. So Joel Poncy and his team at Thales Alenia Space have imagined clipper ships cruising the solar system, loaded to the gunwales with…data.
In a paper presented at the recent European Planetary Science Congress (here’s a PDF version), Poncy et al. conceive of a solar-sailing data clipper that would fly close to an orbiter circling a distant planet, upload its data, then return to Earth to dump the stored terabytes. “Space-rated flash memories will soon be able to store the huge quantities of data needed for the global mapping of planetary bodies in high resolution,” said Poncy in a press release. “But a full high-res map of, say, Europa or Titan, would take several decades to download from a traditional orbiter, even using very large antennae. Downloading data is the major design driver for interplanetary missions. We think that data clippers would be a very efficient way of overcoming this bottleneck.”
And it may be a concept whose technological time has come. After years of speculation and aborted launch attempts, one solar sail, Japan’s IKAROS, is already flying, and another, NASA’s NanoSail-D, is scheduled for launch on November 19 from Alaska. An identical NanoSail was destroyed on the failed launch of the third Falcon 1 rocket in 2008. This time a Minotaur IV will provide the ride.
June 17, 2010
In other happenings:
- The Hayabusa asteroid sample return capsule came home in spectacular style last week. Video here.
- Scientists on NASA’s Kepler planet-hunting mission have released a new batch of data, and now have 400 “objects of interest” that could turn out to be new planets. There’s some disagreement over whether the team should be able to hold on to the data until they’re sure, though.