This illustration of NASA’s Solar Cruiser shows the small satellite with its solar sail deployed. The Space Dynamics Laboratory will build two space-based radios for the spacecraft. (Credit: NASA Marshall Space Flight Center)

NORTH LOGAN – Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory (SDL) recently won a contract to build two space-based radios for NASA’s new Solar Cruiser Mission.

Tim Neilsen, SDL’s program manager for the project, said NASA plans to unfurl a very large solar sail on the Solar Cruiser.

“That sounds almost like a sail on a big ship crossing the ocean,” Neilsen said. “It’s a very similar concept, but instead of using the wind, they’re using the solar pressure to drive the spacecraft and they can actually propel the spacecraft and navigate the spacecraft using that very large sail.

“It’s kind of a new and interesting technology that NASA wants demonstrated so they can use it for future missions.”

Neilsen said through a process called solar sail propulsion sunlight will propel the spacecraft.

He said SDL’s role in the project is to provide two Iris radios which will serve as the communications system in the satellite.

“That allows the satellite to receive commands from Earth and also transmit its telemetry and data back to the Earth,” Neilsen explained. “And that occurs by way of the Deep Space Network.”

Neilsen calls the Solar Cruiser Mission a technology demonstration and the entire purpose of the mission is to try out the solar sail.

“The reason NASA does technology demonstration missions is they’re usually much less expensive — they’re more cost effective to the taxpayer — but they’re also a little higher risk because they’re using technologies that haven’t really been fully fleshed out.”

What is learned on this mission will permit future missions to address questions about the sun and its interaction with Earth.

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