NASA solar sail could take science to new heights

As NASA’s exploration continues to push boundaries, a new solar sail concept selected by the agency for development toward a demonstration mission could take science to new destinations.

As NASA’s exploration continues to push boundaries, a new solar sail concept selected by the agency for development toward a demonstration mission could take 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 transfer NIAC concepts with the greatest potential impact to NASA, other government agencies or commercial partners.

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“As we move further into the cosmos than ever before, we need innovative, advanced technologies to power our missions,” said NASA administrator Bill Nelson. “The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program is helping to unlock visionary ideas — such as new solar sails — and bring them closer to reality.”

Like a sailboat that uses wind to cross the ocean, solar sails use the pressure exerted by sunlight to propel a vessel through space. Existing reflective shade sail designs are usually very large and very thin, and they are constrained by the direction of sunlight, forcing trade-offs between power and navigation. Diffractive light sails would use small gratings embedded in thin films to take advantage of a property of light called diffraction, which causes light to scatter as it passes through a narrow opening. This would allow the spacecraft to make more efficient use of sunlight without sacrificing maneuverability.

“Exploring the universe means we need new tools, new ideas and new ways to get to 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.”

The new Phase III award gives the research team $2 million over two years to continue technology development in preparation for a potential future demonstration mission. The project is led by Amber Dubill of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

“NIAC enables us to advance some of the most creative technology concepts in space travel,” said Mike LaPointe, acting program director for the NIAC program at NASA headquarters. “Our goal is to change the possible, and diffractive solar sailing promises to do just that for some exciting new mission applications.”

Diffractive light sailing would expand the capacity of solar sails beyond what is possible with missions currently in development. The project is led by Amber Dubill of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. The concept’s feasibility has previously been explored as part of the NIAC’s Phase I and Phase II awards, led by Dr. Grover Swartzlander of the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, who will continue as a co-investigator on the project. During the previous awards, the team has designed, made and tested different types of diffractive sail materials; conducted experiments and designed new navigation and control schemes for a potential diffractive light sail mission orbiting the sun’s poles.

Work under Phase III will optimize sail material and conduct ground tests in support of this conceptual solar mission. Orbits passing over the sun’s north and south poles are difficult to achieve with conventional spacecraft propulsion. Lightweight diffractive light sails 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 capabilities for forecasting space weather.

“Diffractive solar sailing is a modern take on the decades-old vision of light sails. While this technology could improve a myriad of mission architectures, it is poised to have a major impact on the heliophysics community’s need for unique solar observation capabilities,” Dubill said. “With our team’s combined expertise in optics, aerospace, traditional solar sails and metamaterials, we hope to allow scientists to see the sun like never before.”

NIAC supports visionary research ideas through multiple progressive stages of research. 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 cross-cutting technologies and capabilities the agency needs to accomplish its current and future missions.


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