Yesterday, NASA for the first time successfully ejected a nanosatellite from a free-flying microsatellite, marking a big step forward for efforts to clear space junk using solar sails.
The NanoSail-D flight unit, also known as a cubesat, is about the size of a loaf of bread and was launched using NASA's P-Pod system.
"The successful ejection of NanoSail-D demonstrates the operational capability of FASTSAT as a cost-effective independent means of placing cubesat payloads into orbit safely," said Mark Boudreaux, FASTSAT project manager.
"With this first step behind us, we have demonstrated we can launch a number of different types of payloads using this common deployment system from an autonomous microsatellite like FASTSAT."
The NanoSail-D sail, made of a thin polymer material, should significantly cut the time taken to de-orbit the small satellite without the use of traditional propellants.
NASA hopes the technology could be used on future large spacecraft missions to help clear space debris created by decommissioned satellites without using up valuable mission fuel.
Now, a timer within NanoSail-D will begin a three-day countdown as the satellite orbits the Earth. Four booms will then quickly deploy and the NanoSail-D sail will start to unfold to its full size of 100 square feet. It takes only five seconds to unfurl fully.
If all goes well, NanoSail-D will stay in low-Earth orbit between 70 and 120 days, depending on atmospheric conditions.