NASA's NanoSail-D has become the first solar sail spacecraft to orbit the Earth. At first, the tiny spacecraft got stuck when team members tried to release it from the FASTSAT satellite in late 2010, but a few days ago it spontaneously ejected from the satellite and starting sailing its way around the planet.
The probe on the NanoSail-D is the size of a breadbox and the sail is ten square meters. NASA plans to observe the spacecraft and study how it can be used to bring old satellites and space junk out of orbit. As a solar sail circles circle the planet, it skims the atmosphere and aerodynamic drag eventually brings it down out of orbit where it burns up in the atmosphere, which for the NanoSail-D should happen within 120 days.
While NASA plans to stay close to home, Japan's space program JAXA is using solar sails to venture deeper into space. Last year, JAXA deployed a solar sail spacecraft called IKAROS in interplanetary space where, using the pressure of sunlight, it sailed by Venus. A follow-up mission to cruise by Jupiter is planned for later this decade.
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