When using solar sails, traditional heavy propulsion systems are replaced by using the pressure of sunlight. A team at NASA has enhanced the design of the booms for the Advanced Composite Solar Sail System by incorporating advanced composite materials. This innovation boosts the sails’ durability and strength, making them more resilient in challenging environments. 

The new boom, made with flexible polymer and carbon fiber materials and therefore stiffer and lighter than previous models, is using a twelve-unit (12U) CubeSat built by NanoAvionics in testing. Researchers hope to successfully deploy the new boom in an upcoming test mission. A series of maneuvers to change the orbit path will also be conducted to gather data for potential missions in the future. 

The composite booms will be unrolled once the spacecraft reaches orbit about 600 miles above Earth. The solar sails will be fully deployed in approximately 25 minutes and will measure 80 square meters. If conditions are right, the spacecraft may be visible from Earth. 

“Booms have tended to be either heavy and metallic or made of lightweight composite with a bulky design – neither of which work well for today’s small spacecraft. Solar sails need very large, stable, and lightweight booms that can fold down compactly,” said Keats Wilkie, the mission’s principal investigator at NASA Langley Research Center. “This sail’s booms are tube-shaped and can be squashed flat and rolled like a tape measure into a small package while offering all the advantages of composite materials, like less bending and flexing during temperature changes.” 

“This technology sparks the imagination, reimagining the whole idea of sailing and applying it to space travel,” said Rudy Aquilina, project manager of the solar sail mission at NASA Ames Research Center. “Demonstrating the abilities of solar sails and lightweight, composite booms is the next step in using this technology to inspire future missions.” 

NASA’s Advanced Composite Solar Sail System will launch aboard Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket in April.