NASA Chat: Ask Your Questions Today About Sailing Among the Stars

This fall, NASA researchers will move one step closer to sailing among the stars.

Engineers at NASA have designed and built NanoSail-D, a "solar sail" that will test NASA's ability to deploy a massive but fragile spacecraft from an extremely compact structure. Much like the wind pushing a sailboat through water, solar sails rely on sunlight to propel vehicles through space. The sail captures constantly streaming solar particles, called photons, with giant sails built from a lightweight material. Over time, the buildup of these particles provides enough thrust for a small spacecraft to travel in space.

One of NanoSail-D's several mission objectives is to demonstrate the capability to deploy a large sail structure from a highly compacted volume without recontacting the spacecraft. The mission also will demonstrate and test the de-orbiting capabilities of solar sails.

NASA hopes to one day use thin membranes to de-orbit satellites and space debris. Finally, engineers hope to successfully demonstrate solar sailing. While NanoSail-D’s relatively low altitude means drag from Earth’s atmosphere may dominate any propulsion from the sun, the nanosatellite remains a small first step towards eventually deploying solar sails at higher altitudes.

On Thursday, Aug. 19, principal investigator NanoSail-D, Dean Alhorn, at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. will answer your questions about the NanoSail-D mission and solar sails in general. Joining the chat is easy. Simply visit this page on Thursday, Aug. 19, from 3 to 4 p.m. EDT. The chat window will open at the bottom of this page starting at 2:30 p.m. EDT. You can log in and be ready to ask questions at 3 p.m. See you in chat!

More About Chat Expert Dean Alhorn

Alhorn, a NASA Marshall employee since 1991, is an expert in electro-mechanical systems and the principle investigator for NanoSail-D, slated to launch from Kodiak Island, Alaska, no earlier than Oct. 1. Alhorn has prior flight systems experience with the Chandra X-ray Observatory telescope; the Fast, Affordable, Science and Technology Satellite; and the Suppression of Transient Accelerations by Levitation Experiment. Alhorn continues to perform research in the area of solar sail propulsion technology.

He is a native of Albuquerque, N.M., and holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of New Mexico, and a Master of Science degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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