NASA will fund the continued development of refractive solar sails. The US Space Agency has awarded $2 million to the Diffractive Solar Sailing innovation project.
The fission solar sail project was selected for the so-called Phase III study as part of NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. “As we go deeper into the universe than ever before, we need innovative and advanced technologies to power our missions,” said Bill Nelson, NASA Administrator. The NIAC program helps unlock futuristic ideas – such as new solar sails – and bring them closer to reality.
Orbits passing over the sun’s north and south poles are difficult to achieve with conventional spacecraft propulsion. Reflective, lightweight sails propelled by the constant pressure of the sun’s rays could put science spacecraft into orbit around the sun’s poles to advance understanding of the sun and improve space weather forecasting capabilities.
Like sailboats that use wind to cross the ocean, solar sails use the pressure exerted by sunlight to propel a ship through space. Existing reflective shade sail designs are usually very large and very thin, and are constrained in the direction of sunlight, resulting in a trade-off between power and navigation. Scattered light sails use tiny grids embedded in thin films to take advantage of a property of light called diffraction, which causes light to be scattered as it passes through a narrow aperture. This will allow the spacecraft to make more efficient use of sunlight without sacrificing maneuverability.
The project is led by Amber Dobell of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. The feasibility of this concept was previously explored in the context of NYAC Phase I and Phase II projects.
During previous investigations, the team designed, manufactured and tested different types of diffracted sail materials; Conducting experiments and new navigation and control systems designed for a potential deflecting light sail mission around the sun’s poles. Work under Phase III will improve sailing materials and conduct ground testing in support of the conceptual solar mission.
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