NASA Successfully Tests Solar Sail Tech

There’s a new technology under test at the Redwire Corp. facility in Longmont, CO. NASA hit a key technology milestone at the new facility with a successful deployment of one of four solar sail quadrants.  

NASA considers solar sail technology to be a promising method of deep-space transportation. In January, they successfully deployed one of four identical solar sail quadrants. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is leading the solar sail team, made up of prime contractor Redwire and NeXolve of Huntsville. Marshall developed the algorithms to navigate with the sail when it flies in space.

The group used two 100-foot lightweight composite booms stretched out a 400-square-meter prototype solar sail quadrant. Although just one-quarter of the sail was unfurled in the deployment for the test, the complete sail will measure 17,780 square feet when fully deployed, with a thickness of less than a human hair at 2 and a half microns. The sail is constructed of a polymer material coated with aluminum.

The sail is a propulsion system powered by sunlight reflecting from the sail. NASA’s Science Mission Directorate funded the solar sail as a new technology readiness level, or TRL 6—ready for proposals to be flown on science missions. When traveling through deep space, a solar sail provides potential benefits to missions as it doesn’t require any fuel, allowing very high propulsive performance with very little mass. A solar sail achieves that by reflecting sunlight – the greater the size of the sail, the greater thrust it can provide.

Potential missions include studying space weather and its effects on the Earth or advanced studies of the north and south poles of the Sun. Solar sail propulsion is also possible for enhancing future missions to Venus or Mercury, given their closeness to the Sun and the enhanced thrust a solar sail would achieve in the more intense sunlight there.

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