Solar Sailing

Several solar sails are set for launch

2 min read
Solar Sailing


Image: NASA
(United States)
NASA hopes to deploy NanoSail-D this year some 600 kilometers above Earth's surface. While that's not high enough for the photons' boost to overcome the drag of Earth's atmosphere, the flight will allow the agency to test the unfolding—in just 5 seconds—of almost 10 square meters of polymer no thicker than single-ply tissue paper. As it falls out of orbit, the sail will also provide a useful demonstration of how such materials could drag space junk to a fiery demise.

John F. Kennedy called space "this new ocean." This year, we're finally starting to sail on it. In May, Japan's space agency launched a craft that steals momentum from energetic photons blowing off the sun for a free ride through the solar system. The concept isn't exactly new. Back in 1974, NASA's Mariner 10 spacecraft used the light hitting its solar arrays to adjust its angle on the way to Mercury.

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Two men fix metal rods to a gold-foiled satellite component in a warehouse/clean room environment

Technicians at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems facilities in Redondo Beach, Calif., work on a mockup of the JWST spacecraft bus—home of the observatory’s power, flight, data, and communications systems.


For a deep dive into the engineering behind the James Webb Space Telescope, see our collection of posts here.

When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reveals its first images on 12 July, they will be the by-product of carefully crafted mirrors and scientific instruments. But all of its data-collecting prowess would be moot without the spacecraft’s communications subsystem.

The Webb’s comms aren’t flashy. Rather, the data and communication systems are designed to be incredibly, unquestionably dependable and reliable. And while some aspects of them are relatively new—it’s the first mission to use Ka-band frequencies for such high data rates so far from Earth, for example—above all else, JWST’s comms provide the foundation upon which JWST’s scientific endeavors sit.

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