Innovative NASA-funded diffractive solar sail could take science to exciting new destinations

Diffractive solar sails, depicted in this concept illustration, could enable missions in hard-to-reach places, such as orbits above the Sun’s poles. 1 credit: MacKenzi Martin

Like[{” 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 human exploration of deep space to advanced propulsion and robotics, NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) aims to change the possible by supporting research into early-stage space technologies that could radically change the future. . Credit: NASA

The new NIAC Phase III award will grant the research team $2 million over two years to continue technology development for a possible 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. Les Johnson, lead on two of NASA’s upcoming solar sail missions at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, is also a co-investigator. 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 orbiting 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 of light, propelled by the constant pressure of sunlight, could place a constellation of science 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 study phases. 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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