NASA is moving forward with the idea of ​​Wild Solar Sail

The artist's conception of the refractive sail.  Rainbow-like patterns will be similar to how CDs display similar patterns when held under a light.

The artist’s conception of the refractive sail. Rainbow-like patterns will be similar to how CDs display similar patterns when held under a light.
Display: McKenzie Martin

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

In addition to the two-year extension, the diffraction luminaire projectled by Amber Dubill of the Johns Hopkins University Laboratory of Applied Physics, awarded an additional $ 2 million by NASA was announced today. Phase 3 funding was provided through the space agency Innovative Advanced Concepts program (NIAC). With the extra time and cash, Dubill and her colleagues will now be working on a demonstration mission.

“As we go farther into the world than ever before, we will need innovative, cutting-edge technologies to drive our missions,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement. “NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program helps unlock visionary ideas – such as new solar panels – and bring them closer to reality.”

The solar sail diffraction project graduated from NIAC Phase 2 in 2019. Rochester Institute of Technology engineer Grover Swartzlander led the first two NIAC phases of the project and will now continue as a co-researcher.

Solar sails operate using sunlight to propel vehicles into space, similar to how the wind pushes sailboats along the water. Instead of using reflective cloths like this developed from the Planetary Society, the proposed system will use refractive sails. A desirable feature of diffraction is that it causes light to diffuse as it travels through a small opening. See how Swartzlander is described the concept in 2019:

We are starting a new era of space travel that uses the pressure of solar radiation on large, thin sail membranes. The conventional idea for the last 100 years has been to use a reflective cloth, such as a metal coating on a thin polymer, and unfold it in space, but you can also get a force based on the law of diffraction. Compared to a reflective cloth, we believe that a refractive cloth could be more efficient and better withstand the heat of the Sun. These sails are transparent, so they will not absorb much heat from the Sun and we will not have a problem with heat management as you do with a metal surface.

Disadvantages of conventional reflective design include sails that are large and thin. They are also limited by the direction of sunlight, which serves to limit either power or navigation, as you can not have both. Refractive sails, by comparison, use tiny grids in the sail material to refract light in all directions. According to NASA, this will allow spacecraft to “make more efficient use of sunlight without sacrificing maneuverability.” The design proposed by Dubill could lead to smaller and more agile sails. And as a fun side effect, the sails will have a rainbow pattern, similar to what CDs look like when held in the light.

As part of NIAC phases 1 and 2, the team designed, created and tested various refractory sail materials. The team also conducted tests and developed navigation and control systems specifically for a future solar mission. Indeed, refractive sails could allow a constellation of satellites orbiting the Sun’s polar regions. Zippering over the North and South Poles of the Sun, the solar satellites, with a perpetual source of propulsion, would make unprecedented scientific observations.

“Reflective solar sailing is a modern concept for the old vision of sailing lights,” Dubill said in a NASA statement. “While this technology can enhance a multitude of architectural missions, it is poised to greatly influence the solar physics community’s need for unique solar observation capabilities.”

Now in phase 3, Dubill and her team will try to improve the sail solar material and conduct ground experiments to further test the feasibility of the idea. If all goes according to plan, the idea could lead to a real space mission and the proposed solar satellites.

“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,” Dubill said.

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