NASA’s first solar sail was scheduled to be released into orbit last week, but the space agency reports that it is unable to make contact. NASA cannot determine if the parent satellite that carried it actually ejected it into space. Sadly, all contact with NanoSail-D has been lost.
NASA hopes to use the sail to demonstrate a relatively inexpensive way to pull space debris out of orbit using the drag of Earth’s atmosphere. The Japanese solar sail mission, Ikaros, successfully demonstrated solar sailing on the way from Earth to Venus this summer.
The sail is a spare copy of an earlier sail, also called NanoSail-D. The original was lost in 2008 when its launch vehicle failed to reach orbit. The cost to assemble both sails was $500,000, Spaceflight Now reports.
The craft’s solar sail is designed to harness light pressure from the sun to change its orbit, eventually slowing the craft’s speed enough to drop from orbit and burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.
Solar sails don’t generate much thrust, but they can propel lightweight spacecraft long distances into the solar system on timescales of months and years.