An innovative fission solar sail funded by NASA could take science to exciting new destinations

Suka[{” attribute=””>NASA’s exploration continues to push boundaries, a new solar sail concept has been selected by the agency for development toward a demonstration mission that could carry science to new destinations.

The Diffractive Solar Sailing project was selected for Phase III study under the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. Phase III aims to strategically transition NIAC concepts with the greatest potential impact for NASA, other government agencies, or commercial partners.

“As we venture farther out into the cosmos than ever before, we’ll need innovative, cutting-edge technologies to drive our missions,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program helps to unlock visionary ideas – like novel solar sails – and bring them closer to reality.”

Just like a sailboat using wind to cross the ocean, solar sails use the pressure exerted by sunlight to propel a craft through space. Existing reflective solar sail designs are usually very large and very thin, and they are limited by the direction of the sunlight, forcing tradeoffs between power and navigation. Diffractive lightsails would use small gratings embedded in thin films to take advantage of a property of light called diffraction, which causes light to spread out when it passes through a narrow opening. This would enable the spacecraft to make more efficient use of sunlight without sacrificing maneuverability.

“Exploring the universe means we need new instruments, new ideas, and new ways of going places,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Our goal is to invest in those technologies throughout their lifecycle to support a robust ecosystem of innovation.”

From human exploration in space to advanced propulsion and robotics, NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) aims to transform the possibilities by supporting early-stage space technology research that could fundamentally change the future. credit: NASA

The NIAC Phase III award will award the research team $2 million over two years to further develop the technology in preparation for potential future demonstration missions. The project is being led by Amber Dobell of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

“NIAC allows us to advance some of the most innovative technology concepts in aviation,” said Mike LaPointe, acting executive director of the NIAC Program at NASA Headquarters. “Our goal is to transform potential promise, and reflective solar screens to do just that for a number of exciting new mission applications.”

The reflective light sails will expand the capacity of the solar sails far beyond what is possible with the missions currently under development. The project is being led by Amber Dobell of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. The feasibility of the concept has previously been studied under the NIAC Phase I and Phase II awards, led by Dr. Grover Schwazlander of the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, who continues to be a co-investigator on the project. Les Johnson, who leads NASA’s two upcoming solar sail missions at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, is also an associate investigator. Under previous awards, the team has designed, fabricated and tested a wide variety of diffraction screen materials; Experiments were carried out and a new navigation and control scheme was designed for optical sail missions that could potentially bend around the sun’s poles.

Work under Phase III will upgrade sail materials and conduct ground testing to support this conceptual solar mission. Orbits over the sun’s north and south poles are difficult to achieve using conventional spacecraft propulsion. Driven by the constant pressure of sunlight, light reflective spotlights could put a group of science spacecraft into orbit around the solar poles to advance our understanding of the sun and improve our space weather forecasting capabilities.

“Reflective solar screens are a modern take on the decades-old view of photovoltaic lamps. While this technology can enhance many mission structures, it is poised to greatly impact the solar physics community’s need for unique solar monitoring capabilities,” he said. . “With our team’s combined expertise in optics, space, conventional solar sailing, and metamaterials, we hope to enable scientists to see the sun like never before.”

NIAC supports visionary research ideas through a multi-progressive approach Stages of study. NASA announced the first 17 levels and the second level Suggestion options February 2022. NIAC is funded by NASA’s STMD, which is responsible for developing the new comprehensive technologies and capabilities the agency needs to achieve its current and future missions.

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