October 6, 2021
Rocket Lab USA, which develops launch services and space systems, has announced it was selected to launch NASA’s Advanced Composite Solar Sail System (ACS3) on the Electron launch vehicle.
The ACS3 demonstration uses composite materials – or a combination of materials with different properties – in its novel, lightweight booms that deploy from a CubeSat to support a solar sail. Just as a sailboat is powered by wind in a sail, solar sails employ the pressure of sunlight for propulsion, eliminating the need for conventional rocket propellant, Rocket Lab said. Data obtained from the ACS3 demonstration will guide the design of future larger-scale composite solar sail systems, which could be used for space weather early warning satellites, near-Earth asteroid reconnaissance missions, or communications relays for crewed exploration missions.
The ACS3 will launch as part of a rideshare mission, scheduled for liftoff from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 in mid-2022, the company said. The ability of the Electron launch vehicle’s Kick Stage to deploy individual satellites to unique orbits, even when flying as part of a rideshare, was a key factor in Rocket Lab being selected as the launch provider, the company said.
“We are thrilled to be NASA’s launch partner for this innovative mission,” said Peter Beck, Rocket Lab founder and chief executive. “It seems fitting to launch NASA’s Advanced Composite Solar Sail System on Electron, the world’s first full carbon composite orbital launch vehicle. We’re excited to see composites used yet again to unlock new capabilities in space.”
Additional partners on the mission include NASA’s Langley Research Center, NanoAvionics, the Ames Research Center, NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology program, NASA’s Game Changing Development program, and Santa Clara University’s Robotics Systems Lab. The lab will provide CubeSat operations support for the ACS3 technology demonstration.