"We're solar sailing!"
January 24, 2011 2:56 PM   Subscribe

NASA's NanoSail-D unfurled its solar sail and is now orbiting 650 km above Earth. posted by Burhanistan (18 comments total)

This post was deleted for the following reason: Poster's Request -- frimble

It seems there are interesting possibilities for small-scale power generation using a photovoltaic sheet as the sail, using the power generated to not only power an attached craft/object, but to use the power to steer and optimize alignment with the sun as well.
posted by chambers at 3:21 PM on January 24, 2011

For those who want to try spotting it, Heavens Above is now listing visible passes for it as well. Too cloudy here, of course.
posted by jquinby at 3:40 PM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Can someone decode the beacon? Would be interesting to know what it's transmitting. Sounds very old school MODEM'ish.
posted by spish at 4:15 PM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

The last section of the first link is interesting, sails will be used to remove satellites from orbit to prevent space-junk build-up.
posted by stbalbach at 4:25 PM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

The part of the spacecraft that was producing the beacon already ran out of power, but that was expected.

The dashboard is here;

posted by newdaddy at 4:29 PM on January 24, 2011

You know who else had solar sails?
posted by Splunge at 5:01 PM on January 24, 2011

I actually spent the weekend building a Yagi antenna from Make to try to listen to this thing and a few friends. If you can pull it in you can report the beacons here. Pharmasat and OOREOS are also out there, thankfully, since NanoSail seems to have conked out battery wise. You'll need to track them using TLEs you can find online and you'll need a good 400-500Mhz radio you can connect to a computer too.

I had trouble finding the 1/8in brass rods for the antenna and instead used 1/4in copper ones, which doesn't seems to have worked all. Great regular FM antenna though. :-)
posted by jwells at 5:39 PM on January 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think using thicker rods will just give you more bandwidth - better SWR rating across a larger range of frequencies.
posted by ChrisHartley at 5:55 PM on January 24, 2011

[GROUND CONTROL] FASTSAT, you are go to deploy probe.
[FASTSAT] Acknowledge capcom;probe deploy
[FASTSAT] Error Recover;probe deploy
[FASTSAT] Unknown Error;probe deploy
[NANOSAIL-D] dont wanna
[FASTSAT] Query;Failure Cause
[NANOSAIL-D] dont wanna go out
[GROUND CONTROL] Probe, please deploy.
[NANOSAIL-D] nonononono
[FASTSAT] Capcom;Alternate Program Requested
[GROUND CONTROL] Just leave the door open - he'll get bored and deploy eventually
[NANOSAIL-D] no i wont
[GROUND CONTROL] oh yes you will
[FASTSAT] Contrary Instructions;Capcom Override;Wait Loop Initiated
(6 weeks later)
[NANOSAIL-D] oohhh lookit my sail im all shiny
[FASTSAT] sonofabitch
posted by CynicalKnight at 6:30 PM on January 24, 2011 [14 favorites]

Two other things worth mentioning;

Japan recently successfully deployed and used their own solar sail, and Nanosail D has gotten a lot of attention on the alway excellent blog, Centauri Dreams.
posted by newdaddy at 7:14 PM on January 24, 2011

Solar sails work by harnessing the pressure of sunlight. Units of light called photons generate miniscule levels of thrust when they collide with a solar sail, much like a kite or sailboat responds to wind.

They don't generate much thrust, but sails can propel lightweight spacecraft long distances into the solar system on timescales much faster than chemical rockets.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:33 PM on January 24, 2011

There's a solar sail wiki. I learned that a solar sail can be used to get closer to or farther away from the sun.

There's also the book, edited by Arthur C Clarke in 1990 with several short stories about solar sails, along with a proposal for a solar sail race around the moon.

Life is finally catching up with science fiction. Maybe it is time for such a race!
posted by eye of newt at 8:56 PM on January 24, 2011

Just remember, to use a solar sail to move any really substantial mass (like a manned spaceship) around, it needs to be very, very, very big. Like many kilometers across big.

It may be a while before we can figure out how to reliably deploy a 5km-wide microns-thin sheet, let alone have it keep its shape and be effectively steerable.

Still, this is pretty rad that they're getting them to work and there's already potential practical applications. Good show NASA!
posted by zoogleplex at 10:05 PM on January 24, 2011

Solar sails make me think of Cordwainer Smith.
posted by tommasz at 6:50 AM on January 25, 2011

Just remember, to use a solar sail to move any really substantial mass (like a manned spaceship) around, it needs to be very, very, very big. Like many kilometers across big.

Just give me a space suit and a trapeze harness and I'll go out on the wire.

Japan recently successfully deployed and used their own solar sail.

Could this be the start of a new Vendee Globe?
posted by Kabanos at 9:00 AM on January 25, 2011

They don't need to be "very very very big", unless you've got a bus to catch. I believe that, post launch, JHU/APL mission ops had to make a corrective thruster firing on NASA's Messenger mission to account for the solar pressure on the heat shield, for instance.
posted by newdaddy at 9:13 AM on January 25, 2011

You are of course right, newdaddy: to get anything resembling rapid acceleration, it needs to be huge. It's true that solar wind pressure has measurable effects on even probes with small cross-sections and always needs to be taken into account.

How much sail you need depends on how much mass you want to move and how fast you want it to go; to get a big probe to Jupiter in six months, or to send something at relativistic speed to another solar system, you need a really big sail.

It'll be interesting to see how this scales up from Nanosail D, which you can hold in one hand!
posted by zoogleplex at 10:13 AM on January 25, 2011

Man, Nanosail-D is so much weaker than IKAROS. Normally, I'd be all "that's sweeeet!" but instead I'm like "*yawn* wake me when a sail gets to Jupiter".
posted by Galaxor Nebulon at 12:52 PM on January 25, 2011

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