A New Era in Propulsion: NASA Set to Launch Solar Sail Spacecraft

NASA’s Advanced Composite Solar Sail System

Table of Contents

Insider Brief:

  • NASA is set to launch its latest spacecraft, the Advanced Composite Solar Sail System, which uses sunlight for propulsion.
  • The spacecraft will launch aboard Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket.
  • Liftoff will occur from New Zealand on April 24 at 3:30 am IST.
  • Image credit: NASA


NASA is on the verge of launching its latest spacecraft, which harnesses the power of sunlight for propulsion. Dubbed the Advanced Composite Solar Sail System, this innovative craft is scheduled for liftoff from New Zealand aboard Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket at 3:30 am IST as reported by Mashable.

Upon reaching its orbit 1,000 kilometres above Earth, the spacecraft will unfurl to reveal its impressive 80 square metre solar sail, which will emerge from a CubeSat about the size of an oven. This sail is made of an extremely thin film that utilizes solar particles for propulsion.

During the initial phase of the mission, the NASA team will perform pointing maneuvers to demonstrate the orbit-raising and lowering capabilities of the CubeSat using sunlight.

If all goes according to plan, the spacecraft will become visible in the night sky, resembling the brightest star, Sirius.

This mission aims to prove the significance of mastering solar sail technology – a topic NASA has regularly advocated for. Solar propulsion could reduce reliance on heavy propulsion systems and enable longer-duration, lower-cost missions. According to Alan Rhodes, the mission’s lead systems engineer at NASA’s Ames Research Center, “The Sun will continue burning for billions of years, so we have a limitless source of propulsion. Instead of launching massive fuel tanks for future missions, we can launch larger sails that use ‘fuel’ already available.”

Moreover, this mission could pave the way for larger-scale missions to destinations like the Moon, Mars, and beyond. However, the success of these missions hinges on the size of the sail booms, which are akin to a sailboat’s mast.

Looking ahead, NASA plans to test boom designs for even larger sails for future missions. The boom being used in the upcoming mission measures seven meters in length but can be rolled up into a compact shape. Once tested, these designs could support solar sails as large as 5,400 square feet (500 square meters) – about the size of a basketball court – and eventually up to 21,500 square feet (2,000 square meters), roughly half the size of a soccer field.

Share this article:

Keep track of everything going on in the Space Technology Market. In one place.