Sails helped humans navigate oceans and seas for hundreds of years before the first engines were developed. But now the sails may also help humans explore the universe. NASA is working on tests that could prove that solar sails could be a viable means of space travel. Solar sails are mirror-like devices installed on a spacecraft that capture sunlight. The captured light exerts radiative pressure on the sails and thus propels the spacecraft through the vacuum of space. Solar sails have been successfully used on LightSail 2 built by Stellar Exploration, the IKAROS spacecraft built by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, and NanoSail-D built by NASA.
But NASA will focus more on developing and testing fission solar sails as a propulsion method for spacecraft. Unlike old solar sails that are too big and too thin, the new solar sailing technology will use the scientific phenomenon of diffraction (the scattering of light after passing through a narrow aperture) to improve maneuverability and power.
The propulsion method was selected for the Phase III study under the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. Under this phase of the study, the space agency and its partners are looking at how to transform NIAC concepts to be strategically beneficial to NASA, government agencies, and other commercial partners.
“As we venture into the universe more than ever, we will need innovative, cutting-edge technologies to drive our missions,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson was quoted as saying in a post on the US space agency’s website. “NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts Program helps unleash future ideas – such as new solar sails – and bring them closer to reality,” added Nelson.
The new phase of the study will allow the research team to receive $2 million in grants for further exploration over the next two years for a demonstration mission.
The Diffractive Solar Sailing project is led by Amber Dobell of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.
Dobel said solar refracting was a new spin on the concept of a light sail that had been around for decades. While this technology has the potential to improve a wide range of mission structures, it is likely to have a significant impact on the solar physics community’s requirements for unique solar observation capabilities.
He added that with their combined expertise in optics, space, conventional solar sails, and metamaterials, the researchers intend to provide scientists with unprecedented access to the sun.