Diffractive Solar Sails

Diffractive photo voltaic sails, depicted on this conceptual illustration, may allow missions to hard-to-reach locations, like orbits over the Sun’s poles. Credit: MacKenzi Martin

As 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 house human exploration to superior propulsion and robotics, NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) goals to change the doable by supporting early-stage house know-how analysis that would seriously change the longer term. Credit: NASA

The new NIAC Phase III award will give the analysis staff $2 million over two years to proceed know-how growth in preparation for a possible future demonstration mission. The mission is led by Amber Dubill of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

“NIAC allows us to foster some of the most creative technology concepts in aerospace,” stated Mike LaPointe, appearing program govt for the NIAC program at NASA Headquarters. “Our goal is to change the possible, and diffractive solar sailing promises to do just that for a number of exciting new mission applications.”

Diffractive lightsailing would lengthen photo voltaic sail functionality past what’s doable with missions in growth at the moment. The mission is led by Amber Dubill of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. The feasibility of the idea was beforehand studied beneath NIAC’s Phase I and Phase II awards, led by Dr. Grover Swartzlander of Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, who continues as a co-investigator on the mission. Les Johnson, lead for 2 of NASA’s upcoming photo voltaic sail missions at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, is also a co-investigator. Under the sooner awards, the staff designed, created, and examined several types of diffractive sail supplies; performed experiments; and designed new navigation and management schemes for a possible diffractive lightsail mission orbiting the Sun’s poles.

Work beneath Phase III will optimize the sail materials and carry out floor assessments in help of this conceptual photo voltaic mission. Orbits passing over the Sun’s north and south poles are tough to obtain utilizing standard spacecraft propulsion. Lightweight diffractive lightsails, propelled by the fixed stress of daylight, may place a constellation of science spacecraft in orbit across the Sun’s poles to advance our understanding of the Sun and enhance our house climate forecasting capabilities.

“Diffractive solar sailing is a modern take on the decades-old vision of lightsails. While this technology can improve a multitude of mission architectures, it is poised to highly impact the heliophysics community’s need for unique solar observation capabilities,” stated Dubill. “With our team’s combined expertise in optics, aerospace, traditional solar sailing, and metamaterials, we hope to allow scientists to see the Sun as never before.”

NIAC helps visionary analysis concepts via a number of progressive phases of study. NASA introduced 17 Phase I and Phase II proposal selections in February 2022. NIAC is funded by NASA’s STMD, which is liable for creating the brand new cross-cutting applied sciences and capabilities wanted by the company to obtain its present and future missions.

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