NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts Program solar sail could take science to new places

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As NASA exploration continues to push the boundaries, a new solar sail concept selected by the agency for demonstration mission development could take science to new destinations. (NASA picture)

(NASA) — As NASA exploration continues to push the boundaries, a new solar sail concept selected by the agency for development for a demonstration mission could take science to new places.

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

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

Like a sailboat using the wind to cross the ocean, solar sails use the pressure exerted by sunlight to propel a craft through space. Existing reflective sun sail designs are typically very tall and thin, and they are limited by the direction of sunlight, forcing trade-offs between power and navigation.

Diffractive light sails would use small gratings embedded in thin films to take advantage of a property of light called diffraction, which causes light to spread as it passes through a narrow aperture. This would allow the spacecraft to use sunlight more efficiently without sacrificing maneuverability.

“Exploring the universe means we need new instruments, new ideas, and new ways to get out there,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Missions Directorate (STMD) at Headquarters. from NASA in Washington. “Our goal is to invest in these technologies throughout their life cycle to support a robust innovation ecosystem.”

The new Phase III award will grant the research team $2 million over two years to continue technology development in preparation for a potential future demonstration mission. (NASA picture)

The new Phase III award will grant the research team $2 million over two years to continue technology development in preparation for a potential future demonstration mission.

The project is led by Amber Dubill of the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University in Laurel, Maryland.

“NIAC allows us to foster some of the most creative technological concepts in aerospace,” said Mike LaPointe, acting NIAC program director at NASA Headquarters.

“Our goal is to change the possible, and the Diffractive Solar Sail promises to do so for a number of exciting new mission applications.”

The diffractive light sail would extend the capability of the solar sail beyond what is possible with the missions in development today. The project is led by Amber Dubill of the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University in Laurel, Maryland.

The feasibility of the concept has already been investigated under NIAC Phase I and Phase II fellowships, led by Dr. Grover Swartzlander of the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, who continues as a co-investigator on the project.

As part of previous awards, the team has designed, created and tested different types of diffractive sail materials; conducted experiments and designed new navigation and control schemes for a possible diffractive light sail mission in orbit around the Sun’s poles.

Phase III work will optimize the sail material and perform ground testing in support of this conceptual solar mission.

Orbits passing over the north and south poles of the Sun are difficult to achieve with conventional spacecraft propulsion. Light diffractive sails, propelled by the constant pressure of sunlight, could place a constellation of scientific spacecraft in orbit around the Sun’s poles to advance our understanding of the Sun and improve our space weather forecasting capabilities.

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

“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.”

NIAC supports visionary research ideas through several progressive phases of study.

NASA announced 17 selections of Phase I and Phase II proposals in February 2022. NIAC is funded by NASA’s STMD, which is responsible for developing the new technologies and cross-functional capabilities needed for the agency to achieve its missions. current and future.

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