We Explored Pluto, Now Let’s Explore The Nearest Star!

Artist’s impression of the planet around Alpha Centauri B. Credit: ESO

On July 14th, 2015, the New Horizons space probe made history when it became the first spacecraft to conduct a flyby of the dwarf planet of Pluto. Since that time, it has been making its way through the Kuiper Belt, on its way to joining Voyager 1 and 2 in interstellar space. With this milestone reached, many are wondering where we should send our spacecraft next.

Naturally, there are those who recommend we set our sights on our nearest star – particularly proponents of interstellar travel and exoplanet hunters. In addition to being Earth’s immediate neighbor, there is the possibility of one or more exoplanets in this system. Confirming the existence of exoplanets would be one of the main reasons to go. But more than that, it would be a major accomplishment!

Continue reading “We Explored Pluto, Now Let’s Explore The Nearest Star!”

Weekly Space Hangout – Sept 11, 2015: New Horizons Pluto-Palooza!

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Special Guests: New Horizons staff Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator; Alice Bowman, Mission Operations Manager; and Emily Lakdawalla from The Planetary Society

Guests:
Brian Koberlein (@briankoberlein / briankoberlein.com)
Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @MorganRehnberg )
Alessondra Springmann (@sondy)
Dave Dickinson (@astroguyz / www.astroguyz.com)
Nicole Gugliucci (cosmoquest.org / @noisyastronomer)
Ramin Skibba (@raminskibba)
Continue reading “Weekly Space Hangout – Sept 11, 2015: New Horizons Pluto-Palooza!”

X-37B Air Force Space Plane Launches on 4th Mystery Military Mission and Solar Sailing Test

Blastoff of the X-37B spaceplane on United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket with the OTV-4 AFSPC-5 satellite for the U.S. Air Force at 11:05 a.m. EDT, May 20, 2015 from Space Launch Complex-41. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Story updated with additional details and photos[/caption]

The X-37B, a reusable Air Force space plane launched today, May 20, from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on its fourth mission steeped in mystery as to its true goals for the U.S . military and was accompanied by ten tiny cubesat experiments for NASA and the NRO, including a solar sailing demonstration test for The Planetary Society.

The military space plan successfully blasted off for low Earth orbit atop a 20 story United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket on the clandestine Air Force Space Command 5 (AFSPC-5) satellite mission for the U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office at 11:05 a.m. EDT (1505 GMT) today, May 20, from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

The weather cooperated for a spectacular liftoff from the Florida space coast, which was webcast live by ULA until five minutes after launch when it went into a communications blackout shortly after announcing the successful ignition of the Centaur upper stage.

The exact launch time was classified until it was released by the Department of Defense this morning. Early this morning the four hour launch window was narrowed down to two small windows of opportunity.

USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle launches atop  United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni
USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle launches atop United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni

Among the experiments for the flight are 10 CubeSats housed in the Aft Bulkhead Carrier (ABC) located below the Centaur upper stage. Together they are part of the National Reconnaissance Office’s (NRO’s) Ultra Lightweight Technology and Research Auxiliary Satellite (ULTRASat). The 10 CubeSats in ULTRASat are managed by the NRO and NASA. They are contained in eight P-Pods from which they will be deployed in the coming days.

Also aboard the X-37B is a NASA materials science experiment called METIS and an advanced Hall thruster experiment. The Hall thruster is a type of electric propulsion device that produces thrust by ionizing and accelerating a noble gas, usually xenon.

Following primary spacecraft separation the Centaur will change altitude and inclination in order to release the CubeSat spacecraft.

They are sponsored by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and NASA and were developed by the U.S. Naval Academy, the Aerospace Corporation, the Air Force Research Laboratory, California Polytechnic State University, and The Planetary Society.

LightSail marks the first controlled, Earth orbit solar sail flight according to the non-profit Planetary Society. Photons from the sun should push on the solar sails.

“The purpose of this LightSail demonstration test is to verify telemetry, return photos return and to test the deployment of the solar sails,” said Bill Nye, the Science Guy), and President of The Planetary Society, during the X-37B launch webcast.

“LightSail is comprised of three CubeSats that measure about 30 cm by 10 cm.”

“It’s smaller than a shoebox, everybody! And the sail that will come out of it is super shiny mylar. We’re very hopeful that the thing will deploy properly, the sunlight will hit it and we’ll get a push.”

United Launch Alliance Atlas V launch of USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle on May 20, 2015. Credit: Julian Leek
United Launch Alliance Atlas V launch of USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle on May 20, 2015. Credit: Julian Leek

The Boeing-built X-37B is an unmanned reusable mini shuttle, also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) and is flying on the OTV-4 mission. It launches vertically like a satellite but lands horizontally like an airplane and functions as a reliable and reusable space test platform for the U.S. Air Force.

“ULA is honored to launch this unique spacecraft for the U.S Air Force. Congratulations to the Air Force and all of our mission partners on today’s successful launch! The seamless integration between the Air Force, Boeing, and the entire mission team culminated in today’s successful launch of the AFSPC-5 mission” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Atlas and Delta Programs.

The two stage Atlas V stands 206 feet tall and weighs 757,000 pounds.

The X-37B was carried to orbit by the Atlas V in its 501 configuration which includes a 5.4-meter-diameter payload fairing and no solid rocket motors. The Atlas first stage booster for this mission was powered by the RD AMROSS RD-180 engine generating some 850,000 pounds of thrust and fired for approximately the first four and a half minutes of flight. The Centaur upper stage was powered by the Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C-1 engine.

The X-37B space plane was to separate from the Centaur about 19 minutes after liftoff. The Centaur continued firing separately with the CubeSat deployment, including the Planetary Society’s LightSail test demoonstration, into a different orbit later.

Overall this was ULA’s sixth launch of the 501 configuration the 54th mission to launch on an Atlas V rocket. This was also ULA’s fifth launch in 2015 and the 96th successful launch since the company was formed in December 2006.

The OTV is somewhat like a miniature version of NASA’s space shuttles.

Boeing has built two OTV vehicles. But it is not known which of the two vehicles was launched today.

Altogether the two X-37B vehicles have spent a cumulative total of 1367 days in space during the first three OTV missions and successfully checked out the vehicles reusable flight, reentry and landing technologies.

The 11,000 pound (4990 kg) state-of -the art reusable OTV space plane was built by Boeing and is about a quarter the size of a NASA space shuttle. It was originally developed by NASA but was transferred to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 2004.

USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle poised for launch atop  United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni
USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle poised for launch atop United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni

All three OTV missions to date have launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida and landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Future missions could potentially land at the shuttle landing facility at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

The first OTV mission launched on April 22, 2010, and concluded on Dec. 3, 2010, after 224 days in orbit.

The following flights were progressively longer in duration. The second OTV mission began March 5, 2011, and concluded on June 16, 2012, after 468 days on orbit. The third OTV mission launched on Dec. 11, 2012 and landed on Oct. 17, 2014 after 674 days in orbit.

The vehicle measures 29 ft 3 in (8.9 m) in length with a wingspan of 14 ft 11 in (4.5 m). The payload bay measures 7 ft × 4 ft (2.1 m × 1.2 m). The space plane is powered by Gallium Arsenide Solar Cells with Lithium-Ion batteries.

Among the primary mission goals of the first three flights were check outs of the vehicles capabilities and reentry systems and testing the ability to send experiments to space and return them safely. OTV-4 will shift somewhat more to conducting research.

“We are excited about our fourth X-37B mission,” Randy Walden, director of the USAF’s Rapid Capabilities Office, said in a statement. “With the demonstrated success of the first three missions, we’re able to shift our focus from initial checkouts of the vehicle to testing of experimental payloads.”

US Air Force X-37B OTV-4 mini space shuttle is encapsulated in 5 meter payload fairing and bolted atop an Atlas 5 rocket at Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida prior to planned 20 May 2015 launch.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
US Air Force X-37B OTV-4 mini space shuttle is encapsulated in 5 meter payload fairing and bolted atop an Atlas 5 rocket at Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida prior to planned 20 May 2015 launch. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Launch of the X-37B spaceplane on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket with the AFSPC-5 satellite for the U.S. Air Force at 11:05 a.m. EDT, May 20, 2015 from Space Launch Complex-41. Credit: ULA
Launch of the X-37B spaceplane on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket with the AFSPC-5 satellite for the U.S. Air Force at 11:05 a.m. EDT, May 20, 2015 from Space Launch Complex-41. Credit: ULA
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket successfully launched the AFSPC-5 satellite for the U.S. Air Force at 11:05 a.m. EDT today, Wednesday, May 20, 2015 from Space Launch Complex-41. Credit: ULA
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket successfully launched the AFSPC-5 satellite for the U.S. Air Force at 11:05 a.m. EDT today, Wednesday, May 20, 2015 from Space Launch Complex-41. Credit: ULA

Air Force X-37B Spaceplane Launches on May 20 with Military, NASA and LightSail Payloads: Watch Live

Fourth flight of the secretive U.S. Air Force X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle is set for blastoff on May 20, 2015 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Photo: Boeing
Story updated with further details and photos[/caption]

All systems are currently “GO” for the fourth launch of the US Air Force’s secretive unmanned, X-37B military space plane this Wednesday, May 20, on a flight combining both US national security experimental payloads as well as civilian science experiments sponsored by NASA, US Universities, commercial companies, and the solar sailing LightSail test from the Planetary Society.

LightSail marks the first controlled, Earth orbit solar sail flight according to the non-profit Planetary Society. It will launch as a separate cubesat experiment. NASA also has an advanced materials science experiment flying aboard the robotically controlled X-37B.

The X-37B is set for blastoff atop a two stage United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 501 rocket on the AFSPC-5 mission under contract for the U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office.

The Boeing-built X-37B is an unmanned reusable mini shuttle, also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) and is flying on the OTV-4 mission. It launches vertically like a satellite but lands horizontally like an airplane.

Although virtually all the goals of the X-37B program are shrouded in secrecy, some details on the national security objectives have emerged and there are several unclassified experiments flying along as secondary objectives on the rocket and space plane, among them are experiments for NASA and the Planetary Society.

LightSail launches aboard the X-37B on May 20, 2015.  Credit: The Planetary Society
LightSail launches aboard the X-37B on May 20, 2015. Credit: The Planetary Society

Among the primary mission goals of the first three flights were check outs of the vehicles capabilities and reentry systems and testing the ability to send experiments to space and return them safely. OTV-4 will shift somewhat more to conducting research.

“We are excited about our fourth X-37B mission,” Randy Walden, director of the USAF’s Rapid Capabilities Office, said in a statement. “With the demonstrated success of the first three missions, we’re able to shift our focus from initial checkouts of the vehicle to testing of experimental payloads.”

Liftoff will take place from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, at some point during a four hour launch period that opens at 10:45 a.m. EDT and extends until 2:45 p.m. EDT on May 20.

ULA announced that the Launch Readiness Review was completed on Monday and everything is progressing normally toward the AFSPC-5 launch. The rocket is fully assembled and the space plane is encapsulated inside the 5 meter diameter payload fairing. It rolled out to the pad today, Tuesday, May 19.

You can watch the Atlas launch live via a ULA webcast here: http://www.ulalaunch.com

The ULA webcast begins at 10:45 a.m. EDT on May 20. The precise launch time is classified and won’t be announced until Wednesday morning.

The weather prognosis has improved markedly to a 60 percent chance of favorable weather conditions, up from only a 40 percent chance this past weekend.

The primary weather concerns are for violations of the launch weather rules related to cumulus clouds, surface electric fields, anvil clouds and lightning.

Launch officials are hopeful that acceptable launch conditions will occur sometime during the lengthy four hour launch window.

In the event of a 24 hour delay due to weather or technical issues, the outlook drops to only a 30% chance of favorable weather conditions during the launch window.

The OTV is somewhat like a miniature version of NASA’s space shuttles. Boeing has built two OTV vehicles.

2nd X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle Successfully Completes 1st Flight by landing at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., on June 16, 2012.  The record setting mission lasted 469 days in earth orbit.  Designed to be launched like a satellite and land like an airplane, the second X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, built by Boeing for the United States Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office, is an affordable, reusable space vehicle. Credit: Boeing. See landing video below
2nd X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle Successfully Completes 1st Flight by landing at Vandernberg AFB, Calif., on June 16, 2012. It is designed to be launched like a satellite and land like an airplane. Credit: Boeing.

Altogether the two X-37B vehicles have spent a cumulative total of 1367 days in space during the first three OTV missions and successfully checked out the vehicles reusable flight, reentry and landing technologies.

The reusable space plane is designed to be launched like a satellite and land on a runway like an airplane and a NASA space shuttle. The X-37B is one of the newest and most advanced reentry spacecraft.

The 11,000 pound (4990 kg) state-of -the art reusable OTV space plane was built by Boeing and is about a quarter the size of a NASA space shuttle. It was originally developed by NASA but was transferred to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 2004.

All three OTV missions to date have launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida and landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Future missions could potentially land at the shuttle landing facility at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

The first OTV mission launched on April 22, 2010, and concluded on Dec. 3, 2010, after 224 days in orbit.

USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle poised for launch atop  United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni
USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle poised for launch atop United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni

The following flights were progressively longer in duration. The second OTV mission began March 5, 2011, and concluded on June 16, 2012, after 468 days on orbit. The third OTV mission launched on Dec. 11, 2012 and landed on Oct. 17, 2014 after 674 days in orbit.

The vehicle measures 29 ft 3 in (8.9 m) in length with a wingspan of 14 ft 11 in (4.5 m). The payload bay measures 7 ft × 4 ft (2.1 m × 1.2 m). The space plane is powered by Gallium Arsenide Solar Cells with Lithium-Ion batteries.

The OTV-4 mission will shift its focus at least somewhat from tests of the vehicles performance to more on science experiments both with extra capacity available on the Atlas V rocket and payload space aboard the X-37B itself.

“We’re very pleased with the experiments lined-up for our fourth OTV Mission OTV-4,” Walden noted.

“We’ll continue to evaluate improvements to the space vehicle’s performance, but we’re honored to host these collaborative experiments that will help advance the state-of-the-art for space technology

Among the experiments for the flight are 10 CubeSats. They will launch in the Aft Bulkhead Carrier (ABC) located below the Centaur upper stage that contains eight P-Pods to release the CubeSats.

Following primary spacecraft separation the Centaur will change altitude and inclination in order to release the CubeSat spacecraft, ULA said in a statement.

They are sponsored by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and NASA and were developed by the U.S. Naval Academy, the Aerospace Corporation, the Air Force Research Laboratory, California Polytechnic State University, and Planetary Society.

NASA is also flying an advanced materials science payload on the X-37B called the Materials Exposure and Technology Innovation in Space (METIS) investigation that will build on more than a decades worth of materials science research on the International Space Station (ISS) research.

“By flying the Materials Exposure and Technology Innovation in Space (METIS) investigation on the X-37B, materials scientists have the opportunity to expose almost 100 different materials samples to the space environment for more than 200 days. METIS is building on data acquired during the Materials on International Space Station Experiment (MISSE), which flew more than 4,000 samples in space from 2001 to 2013, NASA said in a statement.

“By exposing materials to space and returning the samples to Earth, we gain valuable data about how the materials hold up in the environment in which they will have to operate,” said Miria Finckenor, the co-investigator on the MISSE experiment and principal investigator for METIS at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

“Spacecraft designers can use this information to choose the best material for specific applications, such as thermal protection or antennas or any other space hardware.”

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

United Launch Alliance to launch USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle on May 20, 2015. Credit: Julian Leek
United Launch Alliance to launch USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle on May 20, 2015. Credit: Julian Leek
US Air Force X-37B OTV-4 mini space shuttle is encapsulated in 5 meter payload fairing and bolted atop an Atlas 5 rocket at Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida prior to planned 20 May 2015 launch. This up close view of the nose cone holding the secretive  X-37B shows the umbilical line attachments. Credit: Ken Kremer
US Air Force X-37B OTV-4 mini space shuttle is encapsulated in 5 meter payload fairing and bolted atop an Atlas 5 rocket at Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida prior to planned 20 May 2015 launch. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The X-37B is similar in many ways to NASA's space shuttle - but it is far smaller and unmanned. Photo Credit: Air Force
The X-37B is similar in many ways to NASA’s space shuttle – but it is far smaller and unmanned. Photo Credit: Air Force
US Air Force X-37B OTV-2 mini space shuttle is encapsulated in 5 meter payload fairing and bolted atop an Atlas 5 rocket at Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida prior to 5 March 2011 launch. This up close view of the nose cone holding the secretive  X 37-B shows the umbilical line attachments. Credit: Ken Kremer
US Air Force X-37B OTV-2 mini space shuttle is encapsulated in 5 meter payload fairing and bolted atop an Atlas 5 rocket at Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida prior to 5 March 2011 launch. This up close view of the nose cone holding the secretive X 37-B shows the umbilical line attachments. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Planetary Society’s Solar Sail Will Hitch a Ride to Space on a Falcon Heavy

In a live webcast, The Planetary Society CEO Bill Nye announced that its long-awaited LightSail solar sail mission will launch to Earth orbit on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy, currently scheduled for an April 2016 liftoff. LightSail-1 and its parent satellite, Prox-1, will be on the same launch vehicle as the U.S. Air Force’s Space Test Program 2 (STP-2) mission. If successful, it will be the first CubeSat to demonstrate controlled solar sailing.

“It’s fantastic that at last we have a launch date for this pioneering mission,” said Nye.

The Planetary Society has raised over $4 million for the mission, but according to Jason Davis from TPS, the launch costs will be paid by the USAF and Georgia Institute of Technology, which developed the Prox-1, a technology demonstration for using small satellites to autonomously inspect other spacecraft.

LightSail will go to an orbit about 720 km above Earth, stored inside the Prox-1, which was developed by the Georgia Institute of Technology to demonstrate new technologies enabling two spacecraft to work in close proximity. After ejecting LightSail, the largely student-built Prox-1 will track and image LightSail, including the sail deployment.

Here’s the LightSail-1 mission trailer:

According to TPS, cubesats utilize a standard design based on 10-centimeter (about 4-inch) cubes. LightSail is three cubes, or just 30 centimeters long. Tucked inside this tiny package are four ultra-thin Mylar sails that will be deployed a few weeks after orbital insertion. The reflective wings will expand to 32 square meters (344 square feet), making LightSail easily visible to naked eye observers on Earth.

There might be a test flight of a prototype LightSail-A on a smaller rocket, perhaps in 2015. This flight will only reach low earth orbit, where the atmosphere is too thick for a solar sail to function, but it will allow the LightSail team to check the operation of vital systems in the extreme environment of space. That team includes faculty and students at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.

While the test flight would only stay in orbit for a week or so, the 2016 main LightSail mission should remain in orbit for several years.

Solar sails are not new, and have already been launched and deployed in space, but have had limited success. The Japanese Ikaros satellite unfurled a 14-meter solar sail back in 2010. NASA launched the Nanosail-D spacecraft in 2011 and is expected to launch the Sunjammer solar sail in early 2015.

A spacecraft propelled by a solar sail uses the sail to capture photons emitted from the Sun. Over time, the buildup of the solar photons provides enough thrust for a small spacecraft to travel in space. Solar sails could one day be an alternative to conventional propellant-based spacecraft.

The Planetary Society has a long history of solar sail activity. In June 2005, the Society attempted to launch Cosmos 1, which would have been the first solar sail in space. The failure of a Russian booster doomed that effort, but then proceeded with fundraising for the Lightsail mission.

Find out more details about the LightSail mission at the Planetary Society, and here’s Fraser with more details about solar sails:

NASA Halts Work on its New Nuclear Generator for Deep Space Exploration

Another blow was dealt to deep space exploration this past weekend. The announcement comes from Jim Green, NASA’s Planetary Science Division Director. The statement outlines some key changes in NASA’s radioisotope program, and will have implications for the future exploration of the outer solar system.

An Advanced Stirling Converter prototype in the laboratory. (Credit: NASA).
An Advanced Stirling Converter prototype in the laboratory. (Credit: NASA).

We’ve written about the impending plutonium shortage and what it means for the future of spaceflight, as well as the recent restart of plutonium production. NASA is the only space agency that has conducted missions to the outer planets — even the European Space Agency’s Huygens lander had to hitch a ride with Cassini to get to Titan — and plutonium made this exploration possible. Continue reading “NASA Halts Work on its New Nuclear Generator for Deep Space Exploration”

NASA’s Nanosail-D Released into the Winds of Space

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Despite being an idea rattling around inside the head of engineers and space enthusiasts for over 40 years, solar sails have never really gained much traction in the way of actual deployment. Today, NASA has taken an important step towards testing solar sail technology for use in future spacecraft.

The Nanosail-D spacecraft was launched Friday, Nov. 19 at 8:25 p.m. EST from Kodiak Island, Alaska, and was piggybacking on another satellite, both aboard a Minotaur IV rocket. It has successfully been ejected from the launch vehicle as of today, and is on its own. Though the sails have yet to deploy, this is already an achievement that bodes well for the future of both solar sail and small satellite technology.

The Nanosail-D satellite – commonly described as “loaf of bread” sized – was ejected from the Fast, Affordable, Science and Technology Satellite (FASTSAT) at 1:31 a.m. EST December 6th. Not only is this NASA’s first attempt at deploying a solar sail in space, but this also marks the first time a nanosatellite has been ejected from another satellite, proving that this is a reliable way to get multiple satellites into orbit at the same time.

Nanosail-D is a nanosatellite – or cubesat – designed to test the potential for solar sails in atmospheric braking. Such sails – made from a an ultra-thin and light material, in this case the polymer CP1 – could potentially be used to propel a spacecraft outside of our Solar System. The Nanosail-D sail will be deployed in low-Earth orbit, about 650 km (400 miles) up. The sail will be used to show how such technology could slow down satellites when they need to de-orbit.

Currently, de-orbiting satellites involves maneuvering them into a lower and lower orbit using the engines of the satellite, which necessitates more propellant aboard the spacecraft simply to dispose of it properly. Nanosail-D will deploy a solar sail and orbit for 70-120 days, eventually spiraling into the Earth’s atmosphere to burn up.

Since it will be orbiting so close to the Earth, its potential for testing solar sails as propulsion is not the focus of the mission; however, the deployment of a solar sail is itself a huge engineering challenge. Nanosail-D will be the perfect experiment to test out whether the method NASA will be using to unfurl the sail is workable in space.

Immediately after the ejection earlier today, a timer started a three-day countdown. Once it reaches zero, it will go boom – that is, four booms will spring out from the small satellite, and within five seconds the sail will be fully extended to its 100 square foot (10 square meter) sail-span.

The first Nanosail-D, unfurled in the lab with the mission team. Image Credit: NASA

Dean Alhorn, NanoSail-D principal investigator and aerospace engineer at the Marshall Space Flight Center explains on the mission page, “The deployment works in the exact opposite way of carpenter’s measuring tape. With a measuring tape, you pull it out, which winds up a spring, and when you let it go it is quickly pulled back in. With NanoSail-D, we wind up the booms around the center spindle. Those wound-up booms act like the spring. Approximately seven days after launch, it deploys the sail off the center spindle.”

There have been other attempts at launching and deploying solar sails before, but once deployed, Nanosail D will be the longest-running solar sail experiment yet attempted. Both JAXA and the Russian space agency have deployed successful solar sail experiments.

JAXA launched a clover-shaped sail aboard a sounding rocket in 2004, and the experiment lasted about 400 seconds. They also launched the IKAROS spacecraft in May, 2010, which is currently en-route to Venus, and will fly to the opposite side of Sun from Earth. The Russians deployed a 20-meter diameter mirror successfully aboard the Progress M-15 resupply mission to Mir in 1993. Named Znamya 2, the mirror cast a 5km (3 mile)-wide bright spot on the ground that swept across southern France to western Russia, and orbited for several hours before burning up.

The Planetary Society is probably the most vocal and enthusiastic organization in support of solar sail technology. They are currently developing a solar sail similar to that of Nanosail-D, called Lightsail-1. The society attempted a launch of a solar sail called Cosmos 1 in 2005, but the rocket carrying the satellite did not fire during its second stage, and the craft was lost.

Nanosail-D is in its second iteration. The first spacecraft was commissioned in early 2008, and the team – astrophysicists and engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center and the Ames Research Center – had four months to put together a workable satellite. It launched aboard a Falcon 1 rocket in August of 2008, but the rocket burned up in the atmosphere. If engineers are good at one thing, it’s redundancy – the team had constructed a second Nanosail-D, and had ample time to work out some of the bugs and develop the technology even more.

Doug Huie, a research technician at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, prepares the spacecraft for launch testing. The spacecraft measures 4 inches wide, 4 inches deep and 13 inches long, and weighs 9 pounds. (10cm X 10cm X 33 cm, 4kg) Image Credit: NASA

The Planetary Society almost had a chance to launch Nanosail-D, according to Louis Friedman, executive director of the The Planetary Society, they were contacted by the team developing Nanosail-D after the failed initial launch attempt, and asked if they would like to help launch the second Nanosail-D spacecraft. The Planetary Society agreed, but the team then found space aboard the FASTSAT launch. Consequently, Lightsail-D was borne out of this brief collaboration.

The timer is silently counting down what promises to be an exciting mission, and potential milestone in the future of spaceflight. Watch this space for further developments on the mission.

Sources: NASA press release, The Planetary Society, NASA Science, NASA Nanosail-D fact-sheet

Your Chance to Weigh in on NASA’s Future Destinations

Where do you think NASA’s next destination should be in space? Asteroid? The Moon? Mars? The Planetary Society is hosting an interactive Ustream chat where you can put in your 2 cents.

“Tell us where you want to go in space!” said Bill Nye (the Science Guy) who will soon become the Planetary Society’s new executive director. Nye and Louis Friedman, the Society’s current executive director, will host the live chat – titled “The New NASA Plan – Destinations” — on Wednesday, July 14, 2010 at 2:00 pm U.S. Pacific Time (5:00 pm EDT, 21:00 GMT).
“We want a lively debate!” said Friedman, who urges anyone to join the discussion.

The Planetary Society has been actively encouraging discussion of the new plan proposed for NASA, a plan that would entail a major shift in NASA’s human spaceflight program. The Society leadership feels that it is vital that public interest be represented in discussing issues that will change the course of the US space program for decades to come.

The new NASA plan for human spaceflight focuses on technologies and milestones that will advance human space flight out of Earth orbit and into the solar system. Mars may be the ultimate goal, but the path for humans to set foot on the Red Planet is flexible, to be determined step-by-step.

The Planetary Society plans to continue to hold webcasts on topics such as the deep space rocket, use of commercial launch vehicles, and robotic precursor missions.

Those wishing to participate in the Ustream chat room or to ask questions will need to set up a free account with Ustream prior to the start of the event. The New NASA Plan — Destinations will also be archived on Ustream for later viewing.

Japan to Launch Venus Orbiter and Solar Sail Missions

IKAROS - solar sail from Japan. Image: JAXA

Bad weather postponed a scheduled multi-mission launch of an H-IIA rocket from Japan early Tuesday, which includes the first Japanese probe to Venus and an experimental solar sail. The next launch attempt for the “Akatsuki” Venus Climate Orbiter and the solar sail called IKAROS will be Thursday, May 20, at 21:58 UTC (May 20 at 5:58 EDT) – which is May 21 at 6:58 in Japan. Akatsuki is Japan’s first mission to Venus, and it will work closely with the ESA’s Venus Express, already at Venus. Also called Planet C, the box-shaped orbiter should arrive at Venus in December and observe the planet from an elliptical orbit, from a distance of between 300 and 80,000 kilometers (186 to 49,600 miles), looking for — among other things — signs of lightning and active volcanoes.

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Another payload is the solar sail, or “space yacht” IKAROS (Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation of the Sun). This 320kg, 1.8m-wide, disc-shaped spacecraft will deploy an ultra-thin, ultra-light, 14 meter sail that will propel the structure from the radiation pressure from sunlight hitting it.

“The purpose of IKAROS is to demonstrate the technology of the Solar Power Sail,” said Osamu Mori, project leader of IKAROS. “Simply put, the solar sail is a ‘space yacht.’ A yacht moves forward on water, pushed by wind captured in its sails. A solar sail is propelled by sunlight instead of wind, so it’s a dream spaceship – it doesn’t require an engine or fuel. Part of IKAROS’s sail is covered by a solar cell made of an ultra-thin film, which generates electricity from sunlight.”

So far, solar sails have only been tested, but never flown successfully. It is hoped IKAROS will be the world’s first solar-powered sail, and that the structure will sail towards Venus, following Akatsuki.

The experimental sail is thinner than a human hair, is also equipped with thin-film solar cells to generate electricity, creating what JAXA calls “a hybrid technology of electricity and pressure.”

To control the path of IKAROS, engineers will change the angle at which sunlight particles bounce off the sail.

Akatsuki and IKAROS on the launch pad Taken on May 17, 2010, about 24 hours before the planned launch of Akatsuki and IKAROS toward Venus. They are stacked aboard an H-IIA rocket. Credit: Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd.

If you are a member of The Planetary Society, your name will be heading to Venus on both Akatsuki and IKAROS. The Planetary Society, a long-time proponent of solar sail technology, and Japan’s space exploration center, JSPEC/JAXA, have an agreement to collaborate and cooperate on public outreach and on technical information and results from IKAROS, which will help TPS plan for its upcoming launch of its own solar sail vehicle, LightSail-1, which they hope to launch in early 2011.

Emily Lakdawalla at the Planetary Blog has more details about the two missions and TPS’s involvement.

The H-IIA will also carry four other small satellites, developed by Japanese universities and other institutions. They include:

The 2-pound Negai CubeSat, developed by Soka University of Japan. Negai will test an information processing system during a three-week mission.

The WASEDA-SAT2, developed by Waseda University. The 2.6-pound spacecraft will conduct technology experiments in orbit.

The 3.3-pound KSAT spacecraft developed by Kagoshima University will conduct Earth observation experiments.

The 46-pound UNITEC-1 satellite from the Japanese University Space Engineering Consortium will test computer technologies and broadcast radio waves from deep space for decoding by amateur radio operators.

The rocket will launch from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan.

For more information on IKAROS, read this interview with the project leader, Osamu Mori