A new type of solar sail could allow us to explore hard-to-reach places in the solar system

Solar sail technology has been the dream of many for decades. The simple elegance of sailing on the light waves of the sun has a dreamy aspect that has captured the imagination of engineers as well as writers. However, the practicalities of the amount of power received versus that needed to move useful payloads brought those dreams to reality. Now, a team led by Amber Dubill of Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory and supported by the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program is developing a new solar sail architecture that may have already found its flagship application: the heliophysics.

The technique they use is known as diffractive light navigation. It has significant advantages over existing solar sail technology, including the ability to rotate. This is a big problem for most sun sails, which lose their effectiveness if they are not directly facing the sun. Diffraction causes light to scatter as it passes through an opening. Using this property in a solar sail material would allow a craft to move away from the sun while receiving the pressure of light pushing it in the direction it was facing.

To create such diffractive pressure, the team created a material with very small embedded gratings to diffract light onto a surface that could still benefit from the force created when that light is absorbed. This would allow any spacecraft using sail as a propulsion system to move slightly away from the sun while still receiving a powerful push from photons of light.

UT video describing what solar cells are.

To prove this technology, NIAC is supporting it with a Phase III grant after successfully completing Phases I and II over the past few years. Phase III comes with $2 million in funding over two years to further develop the material used on the solar sail, culminating in ground tests that could portend use in deep space.

Deep space is the most likely location for an application such as these diffractive sails. In particular, researchers believe they will play a key role in heliophysics. Traditional propulsion technologies don’t work well around the sun’s poles, given the magnetic interference in that space. Traditional sun sails wouldn’t work well either, as incident light falling on them in these places would push them away from the sun or not repel them at all.

Weekly Space Hangout with UT Editor Fraser Cain & Amber Dubill – Principal Investigator of Diffractive Solar Sail Technology.

With a diffractive solar sail, a spacecraft could always point in the right direction while using the force of light to move efficiently. This would allow a craft equipped with one to observe the sun from an angle never seen before. But there is still a long way to go before a ship is equipped with it. The funding path after NIAC Phase III is murky at best at the moment, and there will still be development work to be done after two more years of development. But, with luck, a new type of solar sail could be attached to the next generation of heliophysics laboratory. And it could possibly be used on many other programs as well.

Learn more:
Nasa- NASA-backed solar sail could take science to new heights
UT- Forget interstellar flights. Tiny light sails could be used to explore the solar system today
UT- LightSail 2 sends home new images of Earth
UT- What is a solar sail?

Main picture:
Artist’s rendering of diffractive solar sails.
Credit – MacKenzi Martin

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