This novel solar sail could make it easier for NASA to stare into the sun

This novel solar sail could make it easier for NASA to stare into the sun thumbnail

Solar energy has been long sought after as an energy source for vehicles all over the globe. NASA is now one step closer to harnessing this energy to explore the cosmos. The Diffractive Solar Sailing Project ,, led by Amber Dubill, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Maryland would allow spacecraft to travel great distances using sunlight. This lightsail would be unique.

The project was selected to participate in the third and final phase NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program ,, which encourages innovative ideas for scientific, government and commercial use. The $2 million will be used to fund two additional years of research and development in order to prove their technology’s effectiveness before a mission. It’s the fifth project to ever reach Phase III stage since the program started in 2012.

Solar sails use the sun’s pressure to propel themselves around the sky. This is similar to sailboats that are pushed by wind, but without the need to burn fuel or rockets. Diffractive lightsails, like the one Dunbar’s team developed, go beyond the traditional design of reflective lightsails. Reflective lightsails must collect and redirect sunlight rays. They must be coated with a metal-like material and face the sun. This dependency makes navigation difficult because there is a constant tradeoff between energy capture as well as maneuverability. Reflective sails are also large, thin and unstable due to their design. The spacecraft slows down . by having the necessary equipment to stabilize and orient the sails .

[Related: LightSail 2′s success could pave the way for more sun-powered spacecrafts]

Diffractive sailings are different. Diffractive sails are different because light travels through narrow openings instead of being reflected over large areas. The team uses small gratings embedded on the surface to scatter light, even though the sail is not at the optimal angle or facing the sun. This allows the spacecraft more maneuverability and efficiency. This design allows solar sails to be smaller, use less power and operate at lower cost without sacrificing power.

Dubill compares the concept to actual boat sailing sails. You would need to move the reflective sail back and forth to steer in the right direction if you are trying to steer into wind with it. You could also use the force of wind to propel you forward if you have something like a diffractive sailing.

“[This design] is what’s new. It’s more efficient than previous lightsail problems,” Dubill states. The team also found that the technical effort of replacing reflective lightsails by diffractive lightsails was well worth it and that the benefits far outweigh any costs .”


Dubill will direct the team to improve the metallic material in their solar-ray collector, and conduct ground tests during Phase III. She says they are laying the foundations to eventually send a constellation light-weight diffractive lightsails carrying scientific instruments into orbit around the sun’s poles. While the NASA and European Solar Agency Solar Orbiter recently took high-resolution images of the sun, direct images of the poles have never been captured.

” There’s so much we don’t know about the sun. Dubill believes that this technology could play a significant role in monitoring the complexities and weather patterns of the sun. “[Our team] has been involved in this project for so many years. It’s exciting to see this technology have this opportunity in future flight missions .”

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