Science & Tech

Advanced Composite Solar Sail System (ACS3) Project

  • NASA has launched the Advanced Composite Solar Sail System (ACS3) spacecraft from New Zealand into orbit, using sunlight as propulsion.

About the Advanced Composite Solar Sail System (ACS3) Project

  • The spacecraft is scheduled to circle 1,000 kilometres above Earth and unfurl an 80-square-meter solar sail around 25 minutes after launch.
  • It uses sunlight as a renewable propulsion source, which represents a significant improvement in space travel.
  • It employs a small CubeSat, similar in size to an oven, that enables propulsion by collecting solar particle energy.
  • The initial flying phase lasts two months and includes subsystem checkout and solar sail deployment.
  • A sequence of pointing manoeuvres will demonstrate orbit increasing and lowering, proving the effect of solar pressure on the sail. 

The Technology Behind Solar Sailing

  • Solar sailing, also known as solar sailing propulsion, is a type of spacecraft propulsion that uses the radiation pressure produced by sunlight to push a spacecraft forward.
  • Unlike typical rocket propulsion, which generates thrust by expelling mass (such as fuel), solar sailing uses momentum transfer from photons (light particles) generated by the Sun.
  • The notion of solar sailing is based on momentum exchange. 
  • Photons from the Sun strike a big, reflecting sail connected to a spaceship, transferring momentum and causing it to accelerate.
  • This acceleration progressively accumulates over time, allowing the spaceship to reach high speeds without the need of onboard fuel.
  • Solar sails are primarily made of lightweight, reflective fabrics like Mylar or aluminized Kapton and are deployed in space to collect sunlight.
  • The sail is frequently designed as a broad, thin membrane with a big surface area to maximise the quantity of sunlight it can capture. 

Solar sailing offers several advantages over traditional propulsion methods, including:

  1. Solar sailing does not require onboard fuel, making it a highly efficient and environmentally friendly propulsion technique for long-duration missions.
  2. Continuous thrust: Unlike chemical rockets, which produce short bursts of acceleration, solar sails may deliver continuous propulsion for as long as they are exposed to sunlight.
  3. Manoeuvrability: Solar sails may alter their trajectory by shifting their orientation in relation to the direction of incoming sunlight. This enables precise navigation and manoeuvring in space.
  4. Interstellar travel: Solar sailing has the potential to permit interstellar expeditions by gradually accelerating spacecraft to extremely high speeds over time, allowing them to investigate distant star systems. 

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