NASA has plans to launch a next-generation spacecraft that could help us with future space missions.

The craft, known as the Advanced Composite Solar Sail System, will launch in April.

Nasa has plans to launch a next-generation spacecraft that will help us better understand the Sun

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Nasa has plans to launch a next-generation spacecraft that will help us better understand the SunCredit: NASA/Aero Animation/Ben Schweighart

The system comprises deployable structures and materials technologies for solar sail propulsion.

Nasa explained that the system is destined for future low-cost deep space missions.

It will fly aboard Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket from the company’s Launch Complex 1 in Māhia, New Zealand.

HOW DOES A SOLAR SAIL WORK?

Solar sails follow the same idea that sailboats do – except instead of being powered by wind, they employ the pressure of sunlight for propulsion.

The US space agency said this, in turn, eliminates the need for costly conventional rocket propellants.

While solar sails have been tested in space before, their “booms” needed major improvement before they could be utilized for deep-space missions.

Booms basically act like a solar sail’s mast – and the lighter and stronger they are, the better the sail maneuvers.

“Booms have tended to be either heavy and metallic or made of lightweight composite with a bulky design – neither of which work well for today’s small spacecraft,” said Keats Wilkie, the mission’s principal investigator at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

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“Solar sails need very large, stable, and lightweight booms that can fold down compactly,” Wilkie added.

“This sail’s booms are tube-shaped and can be squashed flat and rolled like a tape measure into a small package while offering all the advantages of composite materials, like less bending and flexing during temperature changes,” he continued.

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Nasa is planning to unveil its latest boom design for the upcoming mission, which if successful can revolutionize space travel.

The new Advanced Composite Solar Sail System design uses a twelve-unit CubeSat built by NanoAvionics.

This design employs a new composite boom made from flexible polymer and carbon fiber materials.

These materials are both stiffer and lighter than previous boom designs, Nasa said.

The Sun – all the facts you need to know

What is it, why does it exist, and why is it so ruddy hot all the time?

  • The Sun is a huge star that lives at the centre of our solar system
  • It’s a nearly perfect sphere of hot plasma, and provides most of the energy for life on Earth
  • It measures a staggering 865,000 miles across – making it 109 times bigger than Earth
  • But its weight is 330,000 times that of Earth, and accounts for almost all of the mass in the Solar System
  • The Sun is mostly made up of hydrogen (73%), helium (25%) and then a number of other elements like oyxgen, carbon and iron
  • Its surface temperature is around 5,505C
  • Scientists describe the Sun as being “middle-aged”
  • The Sun formed 4.6billion years ago, and tt’s been in its current state for around four billion years
  • It’s expected that it will remain stable for another five billion years
  • It doesn’t have enough mass to explode as a supernova
  • Instead, we expect it to turn a hulking red giant
  • During this phase, it will be so big that it will engulf Mercury, Venus and Earth
  • Eventually it will turn into an incredibly hot white dwarf, and will stay that way for trillions of years

What’s more, the new design could potentially support future solar sails as large as 5,400 square feet.

And technology resulting from the mission’s success could support sails of up to 21,500 square feet.

Nasa’s main objectives are to successfully demonstrate the new boom’s deployment and to prove the sail’s performance.  

“The hope is that the new technologies verified on this spacecraft will inspire others to use them in ways we haven’t even considered,” said Alan Rhodes, the mission’s lead systems engineer at Nasa’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California.

READ MORE SUN STORIES

“The Sun will continue burning for billions of years, so we have a limitless source of propulsion. Instead of launching massive fuel tanks for future missions, we can launch larger sails that use “fuel” already available,” Rhodes added.

“We will demonstrate a system that uses this abundant resource to take those next giant steps in exploration and science,” he concluded.

This post first appeared on Thesun.co.uk

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