A team at NASA’s Langley Research Center, with partners from NASA Ames Research Center, NanoAvionics, and Santa Clara University’s Robotics Systems Lab, is developing a deployable lightweight composite boom and solar sail system for the Advanced Composite Solar Sail System (ACS3) mission, the first use of composite booms for a solar sail in orbit. 

The system is solar powered, an alternative to rocket propellant and electrical propulsion systems. Relying on sunlight offers options in spacecraft design that might otherwise be unavailable.  

The composite booms are deployed from a 12-unit (12U) CubeSat, a cost-effective nanosatellite measuring only 23 cm x 34 cm.  When compared to traditional metallic deployable booms, the ACS3 booms are 75% lighter and experience 100 times less thermal distortion when exposed to heat.  

Once in space, the CubeSat will quickly deploy the solar power arrays and unfurl the composite booms, taking only 20 to 30 minutes. The square-shaped sails, made of a flexible polymer material reinforced with carbon fiber, measure approximately 9 meters on each side. The composite material is ideal for the mission, as it can be rolled for compact storage but maintains strength and is resistant to bending and warping when exposed to temperature change. Onboard cameras will document the shape and alignment of the deployed sail for assessment.  

The technology developed for the composite booms for the ACS3 mission is scalable for future missions for solar sails up to 500 square meters, and researchers are working to develop solar sails as large as 2,000 square meters.  

The objectives of the mission include successful sail packing and deployment of the composite boom in low orbit to evaluate the efficacy of the shape and design of the sail and collecting data on the sail’s performance to provide information for development of the larger future systems.   

Scientists hope to gather data from the ACS3 mission to be applied to design of future systems that could be used for communications for manned exploration missions, for space weather warning satellites, and for asteroid reconnaissance missions. 

The ACS3 mission is scheduled to launch no earlier than mid-2022.