A new Kind of Solar Sail Could let us Explore Difficult Places to Reach in the Solar System

Solar sailing technology has been a dream of many for decades. The simple elegance of sailing on the light waves of the sun does have a dreamy aspect to it that has captured the imagination of engineers as well as writers. However, the practicalities of the amount of energy received compared to that needed to move useful payloads have brought those dreams back to reality. Now, a team led by Amber Dubill of John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and supported by the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program is developing new solar sail architecture that might have already found its killer app – heliophysics.

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Tiny NEA Scout Solar Sail Mission to Chase Asteroid

NEA Scout
NEA Scout: a mission to a small near-Earth Asteroid. Credit: NASA-JPL

NEA Scout will hitch a ride to an asteroid on the Artemis 1 Moon mission.

Tucked away on the long-awaited, historic launch of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) this April is a small, shoebox-sized mission mission that with use an innovative solar sail technology, to chase down a school-bus sized asteroid.

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LightSail 2 has Been Flying for 30 Months now, Paving the way for Future Solar Sail Missions

LIGHTSAIL 2 IMAGE OF AFGHANISTAN AND PAKISTAN This image taken by The Planetary Society's LightSail 2 spacecraft on May 31, 2021 shows Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Arabian Sea. The Caspian Sea is at lower left. The shadows of the spacecraft's solar panels can be seen on the sail. North is approximately at the top left. This image has been color-adjusted and some distortion from the camera’s 180-degree fisheye lens has been removed. Credit: The Planetary Society

Even after 30 months in space, The Planetary Society’s LightSail 2 mission continues to successfully “sail on sunbeams” demonstrating solar sail technology in Earth orbit. The mission is providing hard data for future missions that hope to employ solar sails to explore the cosmos.

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NASA is Testing out new Composite Materials for Building Lightweight Solar Sail Supports

Space exploration is driven by technology – sometimes literally in the case of propulsion technologies.  Solar sails are one of those propulsion technologies that has been getting a lot of attention lately.  They have some obvious advantages, such as not requiring fuel, and their ability to last almost indefinitely.  But they have some disadvantages too, not the least of which is how difficult they are to deploy in space.  Now, a team from NASA’s Langley Research Center has developed a novel time of composite boom that they believe can help solve that weakness of solar sails, and they have a technology demonstration mission coming up next year to prove it.

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A Small Satellite With a Solar Sail Could Catch up With an Interstellar Object

When Oumuamua, the first interstellar object ever observed passing through the Solar System, was discovered in 2017, it exhibited some unexpected properties that left astronomers scratching their heads. Its elongated shape, lack of a coma, and the fact that it changed its trajectory were all surprising, leading to several competing theories about its origin: was it a hydrogen iceberg exhibiting outgassing, or maybe an extraterrestrial solar sail (sorry folks, not likely) on a deep-space journey? We may never know the answer, because Oumuamua was moving too fast, and was observed too late, to get a good look.

It may be too late for Oumuamua, but we could be ready for the next strange interstellar visitor if we wanted to. A spacecraft could be designed and built to catch such an object at a moment’s notice. The idea of an interstellar interceptor like this has been floated by various experts, and funding to study such a concept has even been granted through NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. But how exactly would such an interceptor work?

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LightSail 2 Has Now Been in Space for 2 Years, and Should Last Even Longer Before Re-Entering the Atmosphere

Photo of LightSail 2's sail deployment. Credit: The Planetary Society
Photo of LightSail 2's sail deployment. Credit: The Planetary Society

The Planetary Society’s crowdfunded solar-sailing CubeSat, LightSail 2, launched on June 25th 2019, and two years later the mission is still going strong. A pioneering technology demonstration of solar sail capability, LightSail 2 uses the gentle push of photons from the Sun to maneuver and adjust its orbital trajectory. Within months of its launch, LightSail 2 had already been declared a success, breaking new ground and expanding the possibilities for future spacecraft propulsion systems. Since then, it’s gone on to test the limits of solar sailing in an ongoing extended mission.

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Want the Fastest Solar Sail? Drop it Into the Sun First

Swarm of laser-sail spacecraft leaving the solar system. Credit: Adrian Mann

In the coming decades, multiple space agencies plan to return astronauts to the Moon (or to send them there for the first time) and mount the first crewed missions to Mars. Between that and the explosive growth we are seeing in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), there is no doubt that we live in an era of renewed space exploration. It’s therefore understandable that old and new concepts for interstellar travel are also being considered these days.

Right now, a considerable focus is on light sails that generate their own propulsion by radiation pressure or are accelerated by lasers. These concepts present all kinds of technical and engineering challenges. Luckily, Coryn Bailer-Jones of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA) recently conducted a study where he argues for a “Sun Diver” light sail that will pick up all the speed it needs by diving close to the Sun.

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LightSail 2 is Still Solar Sailing, But it’s Getting Lower and Lower with Each Orbit

LightSail 2 captured this image on 25 November 2019. The top end of Australia’s Northern Territory is in the center of the image. North is approximately at the bottom of the image. The city of Darwin is beneath the clouds near the tip of the sail’s middle boom. The island of New Guinea can be seen to the left. A lens flare also appears in the left part of the image. The sail appears curved due to the spacecraft's 185-degree fisheye camera lens. The image has been color corrected and some of the distortion has been removed. Image Credit: The Planetary Society

LightSail 2 deployed it solar sail five months ago, and it’s still orbiting Earth. It’s a successful demonstration of the potential of solar sail spacecraft. Now the LightSail 2 team at The Planetary Society has released a paper outlining their findings from the mission so far.

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The Light Sail is Working… It’s Working!

A beautiful sight! In this image, LightSail 2's solar sail is almost fully deployed on July 23rd. The fish-eye camera lens makes the sail appear warped. Image Credit: The Planetary Society

Good news from The Planetary Society: LightSail 2’s solar sail is functioning as intended. After launching on June 25th, then deploying its solar sail system on July 23rd, mission managers have been working with the solar sail to optimize they way LightSail 2 orients itself towards the Sun. Now The Planetary Society reports that the spacecraft has used its solar sail to raise its orbit.

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LightSail 2 is Sending Home New Pictures of Earth

LightSail 2 captured this image of Mexico on July 12th, 2019. The image is looking east across Mexico. The tip of the Baja Peninsula is on the left, and on the far right is Tropical Storm Barry. Image Credit: The Planetary Society

LightSail 2, the brainchild of The Planetary Society, has gifted us two new gorgeous images of Earth. The small spacecraft is currently in orbit at about 720 km, and the LightSail 2 mission team is putting it through its paces in preparation for solar sail deployment sometime on or after Sunday, July 21st.

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