A reluctant mini-satellite finally sprang from its mother ship this week, and NASA used amateur radio operators to help find it and check on its status.
The NanoSail-D was supposed to deploy from the Fast Affordable Scientific and Technology Satellite, or FASTSAT, on December 6, but it just sat there for more than six weeks, refusing to come out of the barn.
Mission operators at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, kept the door open, hoping the NanoSatellite – about the size of a loaf of bread – would eventually emerge on its own, which it finally did on Wednesday.
"We knew that the door opened and it was possible that NanoSail-D could eject on its own," Mark Boudreaux, FASTSAT project manager at the Marshall Center, said in a press release. "What a pleasant surprise this morning when our flight operations team confirmed that NanoSail-D is now a free flyer."
That event triggered a three-day countdown until four doors are supposed to open like the blades on a ceiling fan, allowing a large polymer sail to pop out.
NASA had asked ham radio operators to listen for NanoSail-D's signal at 437.270 megahertz and report their findings to the NanoSail-D dashboard.
By midday Thursday a signal had been detected, and the team in Huntsville determined the craft was operating normally, NASA reported.
NanoSail-D is expected to stay in low-Earth orbit for 70 to 120 days, depending on atmospheric conditions.
The purpose of the test mission is to show that NASA can deploy a solar sail and that it can deploy a mini-satellite without its host satellite later colliding with it.