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NASA Selects Rocket Lab to Launch New Solar Sail Technology
NASA Selects Rocket Lab to Launch New Solar Sail Technology

Rocket Lab has been selected to launch NASA’s Advanced Composite Solar Sail System (ACS3) on its Electron launch vehicle. ACS3 will launch as one part of a rideshare mission, scheduled for lift-off from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand in mid-2022.

The Electron launch vehicle’s Kick Stage can deploy individual satellites to unique orbits even when flying as part of a rideshare mission, a key factor in Rocket Lab being selected as the launch provider, the company said. ACS3 requires a higher altitude than the other payloads launching on the same mission. Once the first payloads are deployed, the Kick Stage will perform another burn with its 3D printed Curie engine to raise the orbit and deploy ACS3. The Kick Stage has demonstrated orbit raises across 18 missions to date.

NASA Selects Rocket Lab to Launch New Solar Sail Technology
Peter Beck

“We are thrilled to be NASA’s launch partner for this innovative mission,” said Rocket Lab founder and Chief Executive, Peter Beck. “It seems fitting to launch NASA’s Advanced Composite Solar Sail System on Electron, the world’s first full-carbon composite orbital launch vehicle. We’re excited to see composites used yet again to unlock new capabilities in space.”

The mission will be the first use of composite booms as well as sail packing and deployment systems for a solar sail in orbit. Solar sails function like sailboats in space, using the pressure of sunlight for a spacecraft’s propulsion instead of wind, eliminating the need for conventional rocket propellant. The solar sail in NASA’s ACS3 technology is supported by novel, lightweight booms that deploy from a toaster-sized CubeSat, much like how a sailboat’s boom connects to its mast and keeps the sail taut.

After reaching space, the ACS3 spacecraft will deploy its solar power arrays and then unfurl its solar sail via four booms that span the diagonals of the square and unspool to reach 7 m in length. Twenty to 30 minutes later, the fully deployed solar sail measures approximately 9 m per side or about the size of a small apartment.

A suite of onboard digital cameras will take images of the sail during and after deployment to assess its shape and alignment.

Data obtained from the ACS3 demonstration with Rocket Lab will guide the design of future larger-scale composite solar sail systems that could be used for space weather early-warning satellites, near-Earth asteroid reconnaissance missions, and communications relays for crewed exploration missions.

Made from a polymer material that is flexible and reinforced with carbon fiber, the composite booms are 75% lighter and experience 100 times less in-space thermal distortion (change of shape under heat) than previously flown metallic deployable booms. This material can be rolled for compact storage, but remains strong and lightweight when unrolled.

Solar sails can operate indefinitely, limited only by the space environment durability of the solar sail materials and spacecraft electronic systems.

In addition to NASA, Rocket Lab is working with private industry partners on the mission. NanoAvionics of Columbia, Illinois is designing and building the CubeSat that will contain the booms, and the Santa Clara University’s Robotics Systems Lab in California will provide CubeSat operations support.

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