NASA-funded Innovative Diffractive Solar Sail could lead science to exciting new destinations

The refractive solar sails depicted in this conceptual representation could allow missions to inaccessible places, such as orbits above the Sun’s poles. Credit: MacKenzi Martin

As[{” 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 deep-space human exploration to advanced propulsion and robotics, NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) aims to change what is possible by supporting space technology research at an early stage that could radically change the future. Credit: NASA

The new NIAC Phase III award will give the research team $ 2 million over two years to continue technological development in preparation for a possible future demonstration mission. The project is led by Amber Dubill of the Johns Hopkins University Laboratory of Applied Physics in Laurel, Maryland.

“NIAC allows us to cultivate some of the most innovative technological concepts in aerospace,” said Mike LaPointe, NIAC Program Executive Director at NASA HQ. “Our goal is to change the potential and refractive solar sailing that promises to do just that for a range of exciting new mission applications.”

Refractive sailing will extend the ability of solar sailing beyond what is possible with missions in progress today. The project is led by Amber Dubill of the Johns Hopkins University Laboratory of Applied Physics in Laurel, Maryland. The feasibility of the idea had previously been studied in the context of the Phase I and Phase II awards of the NIAC, headed by Dr. Grover Swartzlander of the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, who continues as a co-researcher on the project. Les Johnson, who heads two of NASA’s upcoming solar sail missions to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, is also a co-researcher. As part of previous awards, the team designed, created and tested different types of refractive sails. conducted experiments; and designed new navigation and control schemes for a possible refractive sailing mission orbiting the Sun.

Phase III work will optimize sail material and conduct ground tests to support this conceptual solar mission. Orbits passing over the North and South Poles of the Sun are difficult to achieve using conventional spacecraft propulsion. Light-reflecting sails, propelled by the constant pressure of sunlight, could place a constellation of spacecraft orbiting the Sun’s poles to improve our understanding of the Sun and improve our weather forecasting capabilities. space.

“Refractive solar sailing is a modern concept for the decades-old vision of lightsails. “While this technology can enhance a variety of architectural missions, it is poised to greatly impact the solar physics community’s need for unique solar observation capabilities,” Dubill said. “With our team’s combined know-how in optics, aerospace, traditional solar sailing and metallurgy, we hope to allow scientists to see the Sun more than ever before.”

NIAC supports visionary research ideas through multiple progressive study phases. NASA announced 17 Phase I and Phase II proposal options in February 2022. NIAC is funded by NASA’s STMD, which is responsible for developing the new horizontal technologies and capabilities needed by the organization to achieve current and future missions. of.

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