When rocket scientists decide to fly a kite in space, it kind of looks like this. Depicted in the artist's concept above, NASA's NanoSail-D spacecraft has unfurled its sail to become the first ever solar sail to circle our planet.
"We're solar sailing!" says NanoSail-D principal investigator Dean Alhorn of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL. "This is a momentous achievement."
NanoSail-D spent the previous month and a half stuck inside its mothership, the Fast, Affordable, Science and Technology SATellite (FASTSAT). FASTSAT was launched in November 2010 with NanoSail-D and five other experiments onboard. High above Earth, a spring was supposed to push the breadbox-sized probe into an orbit of its own with room to unfurl a sail. But when the big moment arrived, NanoSail-D got stuck.
"We couldn't get out of FASTSAT," says Alhorn. "It was heart-wrenching—yet another failure in the long and troubled history of solar sails."
Team members began to give up hope as weeks went by and NanoSail-D remained stubbornly and inexplicably onboard. The mission seemed to be over before it even began.
And then came Jan. 17th. For reasons engineers still don't fully understand, NanoSail-D spontaneously ejected itself. When Alhorn walked into the control room and saw the telemetry on the screen, he says "I couldn't believe my eyes. Our spacecraft was flying free!"