Sunday, December 12, 2010

NanoSail-D: Maybe It's Working, Maybe Not

"NanoSail-D Mission Status Update for Dec. 10"
NanoSail-D Latest News, NASA (December 10, 2010)

"At this time, it is not clear that NanoSail-D ejected from the Fast, Affordable, Science and Technology Satellite (FASTSAT) as originally stated on Monday, Dec. 6. At the time of ejection, spacecraft telemetry data showed a positive ejection as reflected by confirmation of several of the planned on orbit ejection sequence events. The FASTSAT spacecraft ejection system data was also indicative of an ejection event...."

Just one problem - as of Friday, the FASTSAT folks couldn't get their satellite to confirm that NanoSail-D had deployed. So they're troubleshooting.

The NASA website has a sort of backgrounder page: "A Brief History of Solar Sails." The idea behind today's technology goes back about 400 years, to Johannes Kepler's observation of comet tails:

"...Almost 400 years ago, German astronomer Johannes Kepler observed comet tails being blown by what he thought to be a solar 'breeze.'2 This observation inspired him to suggest that 'ships and sails proper for heavenly air should be fashioned' to glide through space...."

He was right - sort of. Force from sunlight is more effective for propulsion. But we didn't know that until 1873, when James Clerk Maxwell did some experimental work with light.

Then it took about a century before we had a chance to put something in orbit, and do actual field tests.

Today, there's a sailing ship headed for Venus.

In principle, we should be able to push a light sail to another star: a possibility the Lemming mentioned in another blog. Something that acts like Star Trek's warp drive? Check out "Humanity in Space: The Next Few Centuries." Remember, though: It took about four centuries to go from Kepler's theorizing to Ikaros and NanoSail-D.

Meanwhile, sailing the Solar system seems a practical approach to exploration. At least for robotic spacecraft.

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