NASA solar sail boom demonstrator reaches orbit

Big things come in small packages

NASA's Advanced Composite Solar Sail System (ACS3) mission has made contact with Earth and confirmed that all is well with the diminutive spacecraft.

Engineers established two-way communication with the spacecraft a few days after launch as the microwave oven-sized CubeSat passed over the ground hub located at Santa Clara University’s Robotics Systems Lab in Santa Clara, California.

Having confirmed the spacecraft was healthy, engineers can work on the mission's commissioning phase, which is expected to last between one and two months. Once done, the spacecraft can then deploy the four booms that span the diagonals of the square and unroll the solar sail.

Once that's done, the spacecraft will conduct a series of tests to demonstrate that it can change its orbit by angling the sail. A successful demonstration will lay the way for larger sails; the sail of ACS3 has an area of 80 square meters – large enough to appear as a bright star in the sky but not enough for missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

According to NASA, "This boom design could potentially support future solar sails as large as 5,400 square feet (500 square meters), about the size of a basketball court, and technology resulting from the mission’s success could support sails of up to 21,500 square feet (2,000 square meters) – about half a soccer field."

But first, it has to work. Cameras mounted on the spacecraft will capture the deployment of the sail, its shape, and its symmetry.

ACS3 was launched on April 23, 2024, on a Rocket Lab Electron and deposited in a highly circular orbit at 1,000 km.

The primary payload on the launch was NEONSAT-1, an Earth observation satellite and the first of a constellation of 11 spacecraft for the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST). NEONSAT-1 was deployed to a 520 km orbit before the Electron Kick Stage completed multiple in-space burns of its Curie engine.

A final burn, following the deployment of ACS3, was performed to speed up the kick stage's eventual de-orbit. ®

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