Thursday, 27 January 2011

NASA deploys its first solar sail in Low Earth Orbit.

Engineers at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., confirmed on Friday the 21st of January that the NanoSail-D nanosatellite deployed its 100-square-foot polymer sail in low-Earth orbit and is operating as planned. Actual deployment occurred on Jan. 20 at 10 p.m. EST.
Artist concept of a solar sail in space. (Credit: NASA)

"This is tremendous news and the first time NASA has deployed a solar sail in low-Earth orbit"
said Dean Alhorn, NanoSail-D principal investigator and aerospace engineer at the Marshall Center.

On the 10th of June 2010, half a year earlier the Japanese Space agency successfully unfolded their first live testing of a Solar Sail, a project called Ikaros.

The principle behind solar sailing is relatively simple. Photons, or particles of light, falling on a highly reflective, ultra-thin surface will exert a pressure. This pressure will in turn push the spacecraft forwards. This relatively simple technology has the potential to save vast amounts of fuel, potentially for interplanetary exploration, and already now it helps geostationary satellites around the earth keep their orbit at correct altitudes and saves them bringing extra fuel.

There are currently two main problems facing this relatively new method of propulsion.

  • One is the fact that the area of the sail has to be huge. Unfolding it is a challenge, as due to the fact that it has to be ultra-thin, the sail rips easily
  • The other big problem is the fact that the material is not efficient enough at the moment and a lot of potential propulsion is lost. 
Should these issues however be overcome, then in the future more satellites and space probes will be propelled using solar sails.


  1. I fear I will not live to see an age when mankind can fully harnesses the energy capabilities of the Sun. Good to see we're moving in the right direction though.