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NASA to test new solar sail technology with launch in 2022

An animation showing a solar sail deploying in orbit around Earth.
An animation showing a solar sail deploying in orbit around Earth. (Image credit: NASA)

NASA says it plans to test new solar sail technologies in space by the middle of next year.

NASA's Advanced Composite Solar Sail System (ACS3) will deploy an apartment-sized solar sail from a toaster-sized cubesat in Earth orbit in mid-2022. The mission will refine technologies associated with solar sails. 

Such sails have been used in space before, most recently in the Planetary Society's ongoing LightSail 2 mission, which has spent just over two years in orbit. "Just as a sailboat is powered by wind in a sail, solar sails employ the pressure of sunlight for propulsion, eliminating the need for conventional rocket propellant," NASA officials wrote in a June 23 statement.

Related: A solar sail in space: See the awesome views from LightSail 2

The data the new mission collects will inform the design of future, larger-scale systems that can be used for asteroid searching, monitoring the sun's activity or powering astronaut communications systems in deep space, NASA added in the mission update. 

ACS3 has been under active development since 2018, and in 2020, NASA selected NanoAvionics to build the satellite bus; the contract amount was not disclosed in the contract press release. NanoAvionics is a spinoff company from a group at Vilnius University that built a satellite, LituanicaSAT-1, that transmitted the first Lithuanian message from space in 2014. 

The new mission will showcase the deployment of a "composite boom" solar sail, demonstrating a lightweight and durable material that could save on mass and therefore, launch costs in future missions, NASA said. The fully deployed square sail will be supported by four booms and span about 30 feet (9 meters) per side.

While the ACS3 solar sail is comparatively small, NASA said the same composite boom technology could support sails that are roughly the size of a basketball court — or 5,400 square feet (500 square meters). For this reason, the composite boom technology will be the focus of the mission.

An artist's depiction of a solar sail in orbit around Earth. (Image credit: NASA)

The deployable composite booms arise from a project at NASA's Langley Research Center that is studying how to deploy large systems, including solar sails, on small satellites. NASA said the booms are made from a polymer material that is reinforced with carbon fiber, making the booms 75% lighter than standard metal ones and far less vulnerable to heat-induced warping. The mission will be the first time that composite booms, sail packing and deployment systems will be used in orbit. 

"This composite material can be rolled for compact stowage, but remains strong and lightweight when unrolled," NASA stated. The unrolling system will include an "innovative tape-spool boom extraction system" that is supposed to minimize the risk of jamming, the agency added.

While solar sail technology is in its infancy, the potential benefits include a longer mission lifespan, as both chemical and electric propulsion systems are limited by the amount of fuel available, NASA said. Mission managers will also characterize how well the thrust functions on the sail while changing the spacecraft's orbit, which will prepare for missions to travel farther from Earth.

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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for Space.com who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is the author or co-author of several books on space exploration. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota in Space Studies, and an M.Sc. from the same department. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University in Canada, where she began her space-writing career in 2004. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level, and for government training schools. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @howellspace.