Solar sail could take science to new heights

(ORDO NEWS) — The Diffractive Solar Sail project has been selected for Phase III research under NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program.

Phase III aims to strategically transition NIAC concepts with the highest potential return for NASA, other government agencies, or commercial partners.

Just as a sailboat uses the wind to cross the seas, solar sails use the pressure of sunlight to move the craft through space.

Existing designs of reflective solar sails are usually very large and very thin, and are limited by the direction of the sunlight, forcing a compromise between power and navigation.

Diffractive solar sails will use small gratings embedded in thin films to take advantage of a property of light called diffraction, which causes light to spread out as it passes through a narrow aperture. This will allow the spacecraft to make more efficient use of sunlight without sacrificing maneuverability.

The feasibility of this concept has previously been studied under the NIAC Phase I and Phase II projects. The team then designed, built and tested various types of diffractive sail materials, experimented and developed new navigation and control schemes for a potential diffractive light sail mission orbiting the Sun’s poles.

Phase III will optimize sail materials and conduct ground tests in support of this concept solar mission. Orbits passing over the north and south poles of the Sun are difficult to achieve using conventional spacecraft propulsion systems.

Lightweight, diffractive solar sails, propelled by the constant pressure of sunlight, could launch a constellation of scientific spacecraft into orbit around the Sun’s poles, deepening our understanding of the Sun and improving our ability to predict space weather.

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