Electron lifts off from LC-1 carrying "Beginning of The Swarm" mission. Credits: Phil Yeo for Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab Successfully Launches NASA’s New Solar Sail Demonstration

On April 24, Rocket Lab successfully launched the South Korean NEONSAT-1 Earth Observation Satellite and NASA's Advanced Composite Solar Sail System (ACS3)

Rocket Lab “Beginning of The Swarm” mission successfully lifted off from Launch Complex 1 (LC-1), in New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula and has deployed its two important payloads into orbit: NeonSat-1 and ACS3.

Electron lifts off from LC-1 carrying "Beginning of The Swarm" mission. Credits: Phil Yeo for Rocket Lab
Electron lifts off from LC-1 carrying “Beginning of The Swarm” mission. Credits: Rocket Lab/ Phil Yeo

The mission

The Electron rocket cleared the pad on April 23, at 22:33 UTC. Two and a half minutes after liftoff the second stage separated from the booster, which was not planned to be recovered for this mission. Nearly seven minutes after separation the second stage released the Kick Stage, which deployed the payloads in two different orbits within an hour and a half.

The NEONSAT-1 satellite from South Korea is currently orbiting Earth at an altitude of 520 km, while NASA’s Advanced Composite Solar Sail System ACS3 was deployed at an altitude of 1000 km.

Electron launch. Credits: Rocket Lab/Brady Kenniston
Electron launch. Credits: Rocket Lab/Brady Kenniston

Multiple institutions, including the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), have developed the primary Korean payload, an Earth observation satellite equipped with a high-resolution camera to monitor natural disasters on the Korean Peninsula.

In the meantime, the secondary payload, the anticipated ACS3, is NASA’s new demonstration of an Advanced Composite Solar Sail System. The spacecraft was carried and delivered by EXOlaunch’s EXOpod Nova deployer.


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NEONSAT-1: South Korea’s first prototype satellite of a constellation system

The principal payload, NEONSAT-1, is capable of capturing high-resolution images to monitor natural disasters along the Korean Peninsula. Additionally, with the help of artificial intelligence algorithms, it provides insights into imminent disasters. The NEONSAT (New-space Earth Observation Satellite) program is publicly funded by the Korean government’s Ministry of Science and ICT (MSIT).

With the expansive idea of designing a constellation system of 11 ultra-small satellites, the Korean financial project counted to provide an overall investment of 220 billion KRW (approximately 1 billion euros). The satellite’s future constellation will be stationed in low-Earth orbit at altitudes between 400 km and 500 km.

NEONSAT-1 and the EXOpod Nova deployer secured on the Kick Stage. Credits: Rocket Lab
NEONSAT-1 and the EXOpod Nova deployer secured on the Kick Stage. Credits: Rocket Lab

Under the NEONSAT program, the KAIST leading university in science and technology aims to demonstrate the success of the mission with its innovative satellite and plans to launch up to 11 more missions before 2030.

In 1992, KAIST developed the first ever Korean satellite, KISAT-1, a result of collaboration between the University of Surrey and the Korean institute’s Satellite Technology Research Center (SaTReC). Indeed it demonstrated the quality of construction, marking a significant success for the program and initiating space technology development for South Korea.


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NASA’s Innovative and advanced Solar Sails propulsion system

The secondary payload launched by Rocket Lab is NASA’s ACS3, an advanced satellite manufactured with innovative materials technologies for solar sail propulsion and managed by NASA Ames Research Center.

NASA’s Advanced Composite Solar Sail System technology demonstration uses reinforced carbon fiber booms to connect the sails and compact them for small storage, maintaining protection until extended with strong and lightweight characteristics. Solar sails are designed to operate indefinitely, limited only by the durability of the materials and spacecraft electronic systems in the space environment.

An artist's concept of NASA's Advanced Composite Solar Sail System spacecraft in orbit. Credits: NASA/Aero Animation/Ben Schweighart
An artist’s concept of NASA’s Advanced Composite Solar Sail System spacecraft in orbit. Credits: NASA/Aero Animation/Ben Schweighart

The solar sails are currently made of lightweight materials such as Mylar or polyimide, coated with a metallic reflective coating. Previously, several experiments were sent into orbit to test the effectiveness of such innovative proposals. Cosmos 1, launched in 2005, was one of the first experiments designed to be tested in space. However, it failed due to the spacecraft’s inflatable tube system failing to separate from the third stage of the rocket, limiting knowledge of the sail’s in-space behavior.

Modern missions, five years later, attempted to test and study the behavior of large membranes, experimenting with ways to dissipate heat from the veils. With the Japanese demonstrator IKAROS from JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency), controlled solar sailing was finally demonstrated. Furthermore, in 2015, LightSail 1 was successfully launched for The Planetary Society, followed by LightSail 2 in 2019.

Now, the Advanced Composite Solar Sail System will test a sail larger than any previous missions. Moreover, NASA’s future Solar Cruiser mission, planned to be launched in 2025, will test an even bigger solar sail, the size of over six tennis courts, to advance the technology for future missions to the Moon and Mars.


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Alberto Pellegrino

Alberto Pellegrino

Passionate Master’s student in Space Engineering, with a love in Art, Cinema, and Explosions

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