Recently, NASA reported that the NanoSail-D had unfurled itself, and is now sailing around in low orbit around earth, powered by the sun’s rays. As you can see, the thing looks quite similar to the solar sailer seen in the original TRON movie, with a small satellite onboard.
This is awesome for a few reasons:
1. It just looks awesome. Like a huge futuristic sailboat, and let’s face it – sailboats are cool.
2. Solar sails are the only known way to propel an object through space without needing to carry tons (literally) of fuels. Because solar sails use the sun’s rays, they have an infinite source of energy. This means satellites and spacecraft that can travel further, and for longer, than ever before. They will also be smaller and be cheaper to build and launch. This is a very good thing for man’s exploration of space.
3. They’re using this solar sail as a net to clean up the earth’s low orbit airspace. As satellites have gotten cheaper to build and deploy, hundreds of companies now use them. There are hundreds of satellites orbiting earth at any given time – satellites for TV, radio, GPS, cellular connectivity, communications, photography, etc.
Also, there are no doubt uses for solar sails on earth, as well. For starters, solar sailboats (ok, that was an easy one). But what about smaller and more durable solar panels? Imagine how much fossil fuel demand could be eliminated if every home on the planet had solar panels on the roof? Imagine how awesome it would be if the expansive retail establishments, such as Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Sam’s Club, Costco, and etc all installed solar panels on their roofs. The potential resource savings are mind-blowing.
You can also track the NanoSail, as it will be visible from earth quite often. There’s a free app for your Android-powered smartphone, called Simple Flybys, that tracks various space objects and when you’ll be able to see them from your location. This is an exceptionally cool app, even if you’re not an ubernerd.