NASA is moving forward with the wild solar sail concept

NASA is moving forward with the wild solar sail concept

Artist's impression of the diffractive light veil.  The rainbow-like patterns are said to be similar to how CDs show similar patterns when held under a light.

Artist’s impression of the diffractive light veil. The rainbow-like patterns are said to be similar to how CDs show similar patterns when held under a light.
Drawing: mackenzi martin

A project to develop diffractive solar sails has moved into the third and final phase of NASA’s Advanced Concepts Program. The team behind the project now has two years to further develop this unconventional means of space propulsion.

In addition to the two-year extension, the diffractive light sails projectled by Amber Dubill of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, received an additional $2 million, NASA announcement today. Phase 3 funding was granted through the space agency Innovative Advanced Concepts (CANIA). With the extra time and money, Dubill and his colleagues will now work on a demonstration mission.

“As we venture further into the cosmos than ever before, we will need innovative and advanced technologies to drive our missions,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in the statement. “NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program helps unlock visionary ideas, like new solar sails, and bring them closer to reality. »

The Diffractive Solar Sails Project moved to NIAC Phase 2 status in 2019. Rochester Institute of Technology engineer Grover Swartzlander led the first two phases of the NIAC project and will now continue as a co-investigator.

Solar sails work by using sunlight to propel vehicles through space, much like the wind pushes sailboats along water. Instead of using reflective veils like the one developed by the Planetary Society, the proposed system would use diffractive veils. A desirable attribute of diffraction is that it causes light to scatter as it passes through a small aperture. This is how Swartzlander describe the concept in 2019:

We are entering a new era of space travel that uses the pressure of solar radiation on large and thin sail membranes. The conventional idea for the past 100 years has been to use a reflective veil such as a metallic coating on a thin polymer and unroll it in space, but you can also get a force based on the law of diffraction. Compared to a reflective sail, we believe that a diffractive sail could be more efficient and could withstand the heat of the sun better. These sails are transparent so they won’t absorb a lot of heat from the sun, and we won’t have the problem of heat management like you do with a metal surface.

The shortcomings of conventional reflective design include tall, thin sails. They’re also limited by the direction of sunlight, which serves to limit power or navigation, because you can’t have both. Diffractive light sails, in comparison, use tiny grids on the sail material to diffract light in all directions. As NASA puts it, this will allow spacecraft to “make more efficient use of sunlight without sacrificing maneuverability.” Dubill’s proposed design could result in smaller, more nimble sails. And as a fun side effect, the veils would have a rainbow pattern, similar to how CDs look when held up to the light.

As part of NIAC Phases 1 and 2, the team designed, created, and tested various diffractive sail materials. The team also performed tests and developed navigation and control schemes specific to a future solar mission. Indeed, diffractive sails could allow a constellation of satellites to orbit the polar regions of the Sun. Gliding over the north and south poles of the Sun, solar satellites, with a perpetual source of propulsion, would perform unprecedented scientific observations.

“The diffractive solar sail is a modern take on the decades-old vision of light sails,” Dubill explained in the NASA release. “While this technology can enhance a multitude of mission architectures, it is poised to have a significant impact on the heliophysical community’s needs for unique solar observing capabilities.”

Now in Phase 3, Dubill and his team will attempt to improve the solar sail material and conduct ground-based experiments to further test the feasibility of the concept. If all goes according to plan, the concept could lead to a real space mission and the proposed solar satellites.

“With our team’s combined expertise in optics, aerospace, traditional solar navigation, and metamaterials, we hope to enable scientists to see the Sun like never before,” Dubill said.

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