"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Praise for NASA's NanoSail-D

The Energy Debate

A big debate is taking place over the future of cars. What will power our personal and family vehicles in the future? Will the most efficient cars run on traditional gas, a gas/electric combination, or pure electricity? This is a good debate. We need to have it. And it is generating exciting research and development.

A similar debate is occurring in the space industry. What is the best way to power spacecraft? Will the best and most efficient spacecraft run on traditional rocket power, electrically charged engines, or solar sails? As with cars, the answer is almost certainly that each type of propulsion has a role to play. This is a good debate. We need to have it. And it is generating exciting research and development.

The Solar Sail Cometh

Image Credit: NASA
"Solar sails use sunlight to propel vehicles through space much like sailboats rely on wind to push through the water."
So says a NASA fact sheet I will soon link you to. Above is a great artist rendering of a solar sail driven by light from the sun, quite like clipper ships driven by wind in the 19th Century--a primitive era when using renewable energy was an act of common sense.

Congratulations to NASA and NanoSail-D

A big development happened this month with regard to solar sails. For the first time in orbit above the earth, NASA successfully deployed a solar sail, named NanoSail-D. It is now circling the earth. And in a development that I find even more impressive, NASA has marshaled amateur radio operators around the world to track this 100-square-foot sail over the course of its short life. To reach NanoSail-D's homepage, complete with photos, a fact sheet and a time line, click this link.

I also recommend the following NASA video. Watching this sail unfurl reminds me of the strange exhilaration got by watching a Jiffy Pop container expand. Sounds silly, I know. But watching something tightly compacted suddenly balloon to a formidable size is a treat.



Taking Out the Cosmic Garbage

NanoSail-D is now intentionally submitting itself to the friction of the atmosphere. As I said above, its life is short. What's the point? Just that, to have a short life and a fiery death. NanoSail-D is demonstrating that we can efficiently deorbit dangerous space junk by rigging it with a deployable sail. Oh that I could have had this technology back when my grandma in rural Utah would ask me to stop watching satellite TV and go burn the trash. (And now you really know why I support NASA.)

Lastly, this post is the latest in a series I am doing dedicated to solar sailing. Most recently, I discussed The Educational Incentive Behind Solar Sails.

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