A solar sail prepares to capture the solar wind in the vacuum of space

A solar sail prepares to capture the solar wind in the vacuum of space

toNASA is preparing to launch a solar sail spacecraft later this month. Using a new mast made of lightweight polymer composites, the Advanced Composite Solar Sail System (ACS3) was used to Advanced composite solar sail system) It is scheduled to take off on April 24.

Header GIF: A representation of the ACS3 composite solar sail system deployed in space. (NASA)

the Solar sails It is part of those technologies whose basic principle is magical. We often talk about this or that concept in terms of metaphors or analogies, but solar sails do not need that. In fact, not only do they resemble land-based sailboats, they operate on exactly the same principle.

The differences are clear. Sailboats move on the water and are propelled by the wind. Solar sails move in a vacuum, propelled by it Solar wind From the Sun, a plasma flow consisting mainly of protons and electrons that is constantly emitted from the Sun at different speeds and densities. Practically speaking, it could be harnessed in much the same way as our atmospheric winds. Like a sailboat, a solar sail can sail in front of the solar wind, move, and do just about anything.

An artist's rendering of NASA's advanced composite solar sail system in orbit as the sun passes Earth's horizon. (NASA/Aero Animation/Ben Schweigart)

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One big difference is that solar sails don't have much acceleration power, because the pressure of the solar wind over a small area is roughly equivalent to the weight of a piece of writing paper. However, a solar sail does not require fuel and can accelerate indefinitely. The hardest part is making a spacecraft light enough with a large enough sail to be usable.

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The sail itself is not that complicated. Since the 1960s, Mylar plastic films have proven themselves. The real problem lies in… Mutations Used to hold sails in position.

This artistic depiction shows the Advanced Composite Solar Sail System spacecraft sailing through space using energy from the sun. (NASA/Aero Animation/Ben Schweigart)

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According to Keats Wilkie, principal investigator for the Advanced Composite Solar Sail System mission on… Langley Research Centre (United State) :

Booms tend to be heavy and metallic or made of light, bulky materials, which are not suitable for today's small spacecraft. Solar sails need very large, stable booms that are lightweight and can be folded compactly. The arms of this sail are tube-shaped and can be crushed and rolled like a tape measure into a small package while providing all the benefits of composite materials, such as reduced flexing and sagging during temperature changes.

The new flexible polymer-carbon composite electrode is coupled to CubeSat Of twelve units (12U) built by NanoAvionics.

An engineer inspects cubesats for an advanced composite solar sail system. (NASA/Brandon Torres)

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After launching the mission aboard A Electronic missile From Rocket Lab from the company's Launch Complex 1 in Mahia, New Zealand, the spacecraft will sit on a pad Sun-synchronous orbit At an altitude of about 1,000 kilometers the sail will be deployed in about 25 minutes to cover an area of ​​80 square metres, with the boom extending from the size of a hand to 7 meters in length. Once deployed, the sail will adjust the spacecraft's orbit by orienting itself relative to the solar wind.

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If the test mission proves successful, it could pave the way for more ambitious designs, including sails with a surface area of ​​up to 2,000 square metres, or half the size of a football field.

According to Rudy Aquilina, project manager for the Solar Sail mission at NASA Research Center Souls :

This technology stimulates the imagination and reinterprets the idea of ​​sailing and applies it to space travel. Demonstrating the capabilities of lightweight composite solar sails and booms is the next step in using this technology to inspire future missions.

It was announced on the NASA website: NASA's next generation solar sail technology is ready for launch.

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