Planetary Society Wishes NASA Well on NanoSail-D Mission

NanoSail-D (Credit: NASA)

Planetary Society Statement
by Louis D. Friedman

NASA’s Nanosail-D is scheduled to launch on Friday — and we wish them well. Nanosail is an innovative development by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight and Ames Research Centers, and in many ways is the inspiration for the Planetary Society’s LightSail spacecraft, scheduled to be ready early in 2011 to carry out the first solar-sail propelled flight in Earth orbit.

The spacecraft is the same size and approximate mass as our own Lightsail-1, although Nanosail’s sail is smaller (3 meters on a side, instead of 4.5 meters). Nanosail will be pioneering the use of the Air Force Research Lab’s TRAC booms, which we will also be using on Lightsail-1. We’ll be interested in evaluating their deployment experience and understanding any implications to our own design.

Nanosail’s objectives are different than ours — they are not attempting a solar-sail propelled flight, but instead are focusing on technology development for atmospheric braking. They will launch to a lower orbit (about 650 km) than we require to prove the sail as a propulsion system and do not have an active control system to point the sail. They will have no telemetry from orbit but will instead rely on a radio beacon to track their spacecraft. It was NASA’s Nanosail-D that inspired the Planetary Society to consider the nanosat design for our new solar sail attempt.

As in our Cosmos 1 experience, Nanosail’s first launch failed (on a Falcon 1 rocket in 2008). But they had a spare spacecraft and asked us if we would like to take it and arrange for its flight. We said yes, but then NASA found a launch opportunity on the Minotaur/FASTSAT flight, which was satisfactory since they have a lower orbit requirement. The Planetary Society then decided to build its own nanosat, and the result is LightSail-1.

Nanosail has opened the way for a class of advanced spacecraft that someday may lead us to the stars. Its successful flight will advance solar sail technology and may lead to new applications for removing orbital debris through atmospheric drag. It also led to the Planetary Society’s Space Act Agreement with NASA-Ames Research Center, a public-private partnership of the type that we believe can lead to more innovation in space.