What is This New Solar Sail Created By NASA?
NASA has for many years been working on solar sail projects, and it continues to push boundaries that could take science to new places. These projects aim to develop innovative solar sails, and as of now, they are at the final leg of the research program. The third phase of the Innovative Advanced Concepts program allows researchers to continue developing and exploring diffractive solar sails. George Dvorsky's statement states that the continuum will take two years with $2 million in funding.
The success could propel the long-simmering field of solar sail research and space exploration to broader use. NASA administrator, Bill Nelson, says NASA needs cutting-edge technologies to drive the mission as they venture further into the cosmos. The NIAC program brings visionary ideas to reality.
Take the sails of a boat. It moves due to wind currents. Similarly, the pressure exerted by sunlight propels solar sails through space using momentum caused by photons of light bouncing off a mirror-like surface, allowing the craft to fly without fusing fuel.
A diffractive solar sail uses small grates, while the current refractive solar sail uses large grates limited to specific directions. The small grates have better qualities like versatility, steerability, and maneuverability.
The diffractive solar sail first came to light in 2019 when NASA selected it for Phase 1 and 2 of the NIAC project. The team put together many sail materials and developed control schemes and navigation for experimental stages of a potential diffractive light sail mission to orbit the sun. The experiments paid attention to space weather and the ability to withstand exposure to harsh ultraviolet in space, as per the NASA statement from 2019.
On the other hand, as preparation for the conceptual solar mission, phase three is dedicated to ground testing and optimized sailing materials.
The solar sail has a history from:
- The 2005 Cosmos 1 probe launch attempt by The Planetary Society,
- The 1992 and 2003 communication satellites India's government launched had small solar sail-powered missions as accessories.
- The 2010 successful IKAROS spacecraft with a solar sail launch by the Japanese Exploration Space Agency and other successful solar sail-powered crafts launched by Planetary Society and NASA into low earth orbit.
Conventional spacecraft propulsion cannot achieve orbits passing over the south and north poles of the sun. However, the lightweight diffractive light sails could complete rotations over the sun's poles. The achievement advances the study and understanding of the sun and improves space weather forecasting capabilities.
One of Johns Hopkins University's mechanical engineers, Amber Dubill, says that diffractive solar sailing is the new vision for light sails. The technology will highly impact the unique solar observation capabilities of the heliophysics community despite improving multitudes of mission architecture.
The Phase 3 study program seeks to transition NIAC concepts and potentially impact commercial partners, NASA, and other government agencies. Universal exploration gravitates the world to new ideas, ways, instruments, and places. Investing in technology is a way to support the robust ecosystem of innovation.
The NIAC fosters many creative concepts of technology in aerospace. Scientists will change the possible and invent what man thought was impossible. The diffractive light sailing project led by Amber Dubill will extend solar sail capabilities to the impossible.
NASA used multiple phase studies to support visionary research ideas. Many of these study phases are on the NASA website, and you can read about them to get ahead of technology.
What is solar sailing?
It is a revolutionary way of propelling aircraft through space.
How solar sailing works
Photons make up light, and despite not having mass, they have momentum. Therefore, when light hits a solar sail, photons reflect off it like a mirror and transfer their speed, creating a slight push. That happens sequentially.
How does it control direction?
A solar sail changes the angle of the sails, uses tip vanes, or changes the center of mass. The angling pushed photons against the direction it was traveling.
- Continuous acceleration to speeds practically impossible for chemical rockets
- Navigate unstable orbits
- Reduced fuel consumption and weight
Materials used to make solar sail
Making a solar sail requires lightweight materials like polyimide with metallic reflective coating or Mylar.