You are currently viewing NASA selects Rocket Lab to launch the Advanced Composite Solar Sail System
Image Credit: NASA.

NASA selects Rocket Lab to launch the Advanced Composite Solar Sail System

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on October 06, 2021 announced the selection of the aerospace manufacturer and satellite launch services provider Rocket Lab to launch the agency’s Advanced Composite Solar Sail System (ACS3).

The 12-unit technology demonstrator is scheduled to launch into a low Earth orbit from the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand atop one of Rocket Lab’s Electron rockets in mid-2022 as part of a rideshare mission.

The Advanced Composite Solar Sail System

The Advanced Composite Solar Sail System is a 23 x 23 x 34 centimeters large 12U CubeSat, developed to study new deployable structures for future solar sail propulsion systems. The ASC3 spacecraft is therefore equipped with four 7 meters long composite booms made from a flexible and carbon reinforced polymer material. Once the small spacecraft reaches space, the four booms will unspool to unfurl the solar sail. The deployed sail will be square-shaped and will measure about 9 meters per side. The whole deployment process will be monitored by several onboard digital cameras, do gain as much informations about the booms’ and sail’s behavior as possible.

The primary objectives of this mission are to demonstrate the first on-orbit deployment of composite booms and the efficiency and performance of the solar sail itself.

If the new technique turns out to be feasible and efficient, larger solar sails up to 500 square meters in size could be made with these new booms, to propel small satellites and space probes by utilizing the pressure of photons emitted from the Sun.

Artist render of the Advanced Composite Solar Sail System's fully deployed solar sail. Image Credit: NASA.
Artist render of the Advanced Composite Solar Sail System’s fully deployed solar sail. Image Credit: NASA.

The Electron launch vehicle

Electron is a two-stage, liquid-fueled, small-lift launch vehicle developed by Rocket Lab. The launcher is 18 m in length, 1.2 m in diameter and uses liquid oxygen (LOX) and the rocket kerosine RP-1 as propellants in all of its stages. The rocket can be equipped with an additional third stage and is capable of carrying a 300 kg heavy payload into a low Earth orbit. The launch vehicle’s maiden flight occurred on May 25, 2017 and the vehicle has conducted 21 launches so far. Unfortunately, the rocket’s first, thirteenth and twentieth launches have failed. Electron has only launched from Rocket Lab’s launch site on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand yet, the company however hopes to begin launching rockets from their new second launch site at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island in Virginia, USA soon.

Like another well-known launch provider, Rocket Lab is working on reusing the first stage of Electron. Unlike SpaceX’ Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets however, Electron’s first stage is not capable of a propulsive landing. Instead the company uses parachutes to slow down the stage and a helicopter to catch it mid-air, before it would land in the Pacific Ocean. Rocket Lab has demonstrated the feasibility of this technique during the “Return to Sender” mission in November 2020 and the ill-fated “Running Out of Toes” mission in May 2021. A second flight of a recovered booster has not been performed yet.

Launch of an Electron on January 20, 2021 from the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand. Image Credit: Rocket Lab.
Launch of an Electron on January 20, 2021 from the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand. Image Credit: Rocket Lab.

Sources:

https://www.nasa.gov/directorates/spacetech/small_spacecraft/ACS3

https://www.rocketlabusa.com/updates/rocket-lab-selected-to-launch-nasas-advanced-composite-solar-sail-system/

https://www.rocketlabusa.com/rockets/electron/

https://www.rocketlabusa.com/missions/completed-missions/

Leave a Reply