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United Launch Alliance Atlas V launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., June 20, 2012 (containing a National Defense mission)

United Launch Alliance Atlas V launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., June 20, 2012 (containing a National Defense mission)

Start getting excited: tomorrow is a big day in space adventuring!  As I write this, last minute preparations are being made on a mighty United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket sitting on a pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.  Not only does the rocket contain a tiny cubesat with the Planetary Society Solar Sail, it is also launching the not-very-secret Air Force robot space shuttle, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (currently the world’s only known operational space plane program—each robot lander can spend years in space working on classified missions).

Just tailgatin' in some clean suits with with the Air Force X-37B

Just tailgatin’ in some clean suits with with the Air Force X-37B

All of this amazing stuff, along with 9 other cubesats will be riding into space via the Atlas rocket’s second stage—a next generational launch platform evocatively known as “The Centaur.” According to news sites, the launch window for this mission is Wednesday [May 20th ,2015] from 10:45 a.m. ET and 2:45 p.m.  You can watch live on webcam (but remember lots of things can push a mission back).


I would be live-blogging this extravaganza, but I have my own mission tomorrow morning: relaunching my imploded career. I will be putting on my navy suit and heading off to the temp company.  Presumably the great masters have some tedious administrative tasks for me to perform and they will not hurl me into the endless black void like little X-37B (although given today’s economy, who can really say?)

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Wish everyone luck! Hopefully there will be no Russian-style crashing and burning with either venture…

This is what happens when you do not bring an extra résumé

This is what happens when you do not bring an extra résumé!

When the Japanese space program successfully launched the solar sail IKAROS last year, Ferrebeekeeper noted that NASA had its own solar sail missions planned.  Last Friday, January 21st 2011, the United States Space Agency successfully deployed a 100-square-foot polymer sail in low-Earth orbit.  To quote the Satellite Spotlight website, the tiny craft, unromantically named “NanoSail-D2” was, “designed to demonstration the deployment of a compact solar sail boom system for use in deorbiting satellites and as an alternate means of propulsion to move satellites in space that doesn’t require fuel.”

Artist's Conception of NanoSail-D2--Picured Actual Size (Ha! I'm just kidding--the actual craft has a 14 foot diameter)

Although NASA’s Nano press page does not dwell on the mission’s problems, it has hardly gone off as planned.  As the name indicates, NanoSail-D2 is a tiny satellite.  Furled up in preparation for launch it was only 30 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm—about the size of a men’s size 12 shoe or a medium sour-dough loaf.  The satellite was supposed to be launched from its mother satellite, FASTSAT–a multi-experiment platform about the size of a dishwasher–on December 6th, but nothing happened.  Even though the launch door opened, the little sail remained folded up it in its launcher.   The solar sail mission was deemed a failure and NASA concentrated on the FASTSAT’s five other microsatellite experiments. Then, unexpectedly the solar sail spontaneously launched on January 19th.  It finished unfurling on the 21st and amateur ham radio enthusiasts tracked the craft’s beacon signals until its batteries wore out. You can find the satellite’s orbital path at the following link.  It should be quite visible traveling across the sky at night for another 70-120 days after which the drag of the sail will cause it to deorbit and burn up in the atmosphere.

NanoSail-D2 was the successor to the unsuccessful NanoSail-D which fell into the Pacific Ocean (along with an Air Force satellite, a pharmaceutical satellite meant to study yeast in zero gravity, and a canister of cremated human remains) on August 3rd, 2008 when the Falcon I rocket carrying these respective payloads veered off-course.  The FASTSAT (along with the NanoSail-D2 and sundry other payloads) were launched from Kodiak on a Minotaur IV—a Peacekeeper ICBM modified for commercial and research purposes.

A Minotaur IV Rocket Launched from Vandenberg on September 25, 2010

Although I applaud NASA’s ingenuity and celebrate the successful launch of an American solar sail, I note that on December 8th, as NanoSail D2 sat malfunctioning in its launch bay, the Japanese IKAROS sail completed its primary mission when it flew by Venus at a distance of about 80,800 km (50,000 miles).  Japan is now planning a series of larger and more spectacular solar sail missions which they hope will culminate with a mission to Jupiter.

Electromagnetic radiation exerts pressure on physical matter.  The more the radiation is reflected from the surface it strikes, the greater the pressure–so sunlight presses harder on a mirror than on, say, an ostrich with the same surface area.  I’m not going to dwell on the physics underlying this fact (although I will provide a link), but rather on the remarkable ramifications.  Contingent on the amount of radiation, this force is rather weak. However, taken in aggregate, across a large surface, light (or any form of EM radiation) can move an object.  Hence…solar sails!

IKAROS (image from JAXA)Much in the manner that wind pushes a sailboat through water, light can push an object through space. Although using such a sail for space travel was demonstrated to be feasible in the laboratory, the great national space programs—NASA, Russia, ESA, and China—have never successfully tested a solar sail in interplanetary space (despite several failed attempts). However, this year on May 21st the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) successfully launched the IKAROS solar sail.  IKAROS stands for “Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun”–an acronym which somehow is both unwieldy and an allusion to a badly botched aerospace venture (JAXA can be forgiven for the awkward name however thanks to the success of the mission). IKAROS is a square sail with a diagonal diameter of 20 meters.  It is made of polymer 7.5-micrometres thick.  A solar array is embedded in the sail to supply the craft’s power needs.  To provide attitude control, the sail also contains LCD panels with adjustable reflectivity.  Various sensors, dust counters and controls are located on different parts of the craft.

IKAROS Mission Plan (JAXA)

IKAROS deployed its sails when it was approximately 4.8 million miles from Earth (smoothly deploying a delicate lattice of sails in the grim void of outer space has been a major obstacle to this sort of mission in the past). The spacecraft is currently somewhere between Earth and Venus.  When it reaches the cloud planet, it will embark on a three year trip around the sun.

To follow up its success JAXA is planning to launce a 50 meter solar sail to the asteroid belt and Jupiter sometime late in the decade.  Other space agencies have taken note and are now playing catch-up with the Japanese.  NASA has plans for several solar sail missions in the coming years (provided poor national leadership does not botch the plans or scrub the funding). Since rocket fuel is heavy (and therefore a major sorce of missin costs), solar sailing technology has interested space agencies and space exploration enthusiasts for some time.  The Planetary Society, an international group dedicated to space exploration, has long advocated solar sails as a revolutionary step forward in space travel. In fact, the Planetary Society chartered a submarine launched Russian rocket to deploy its own solar sail into space but the mission sadly failed when the rocket malfunctioned.  Fortunately, the society has regained its old maniacal chutzpah and is launching a new solar sail mission (additionally, and even more importantly, it continues to lobby national governments for additional space funding)  

JAXA's next solar sail mission will apparently look like throwing a shuriken into an asteroid. Awesome!

In the near future, solar sails might be used for interplanetary missions or for de-orbiting old satellites and space debris (this latter task is growing in importance as humankind fills up near earth orbit with junk).  Hybrid drives which utilize solar sails and solar powered ion drives in tandem are also on the drawing board. In the farther future, who knows?  So far this is the only possible option for interstellar travel which utilizes technology humankind currently possesses (well, aside from ridiculous nuclear fission designs).  It has been proposed that giant space lasers could be used in tandem with the sun to accelerate probes to nearby stars.  Unfortunately such lofty prospects are still science fiction at present.

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