NASA to test new solar sail technology

Oct 14, 2011 By Ray Sanders, Universe Today
The Solar Sail demonstration mission. Credit: NASA

Solar sails, much like anti-matter and ion engines appear at first glance to only exist in science fiction. Many technologies from science fiction however, become science fact.

In the example of solar sails, perfecting the technology would allow to travel through our solar system using very little fuel.

NASA has been making strides with solar sail technology. Using the NanoSail-D mission, NASA continues to gather valuable data on how well solar sails perform in space. The Planetary Society will also be testing solar sail technology with their LightSail-1 project sometime next year.

How will NASA (and others) test solar sail technology, and develop it into a common, reliable technology?

The second of three recently announced technology demonstrations, The Solar Sail Demonstration, will test the deployment of a solar sail in space along with testing . The solar sail will also execute a navigation sequence with mission-capable accuracy.

In order to make science fiction into reality, NASA engineers are testing solar sails that could one day provide the propulsion for deep . Spacecraft using solar sails would travel in our solar system in a similar manner to a sailboat through water, except spacecraft using solar sails would rely on sunlight instead of wind. A spacecraft propelled by a solar sail would use the sail to capture photons emitted from the Sun. Over time, the buildup of the solar photons provides enough thrust for a small spacecraft to travel in space.

NASA’s solar sail demonstration mission will deploy and operate a sail area 7 times larger than ever flown in space. The technology used in the demonstration will be applicable to many future space missions, including use in space weather warning systems to provide timely and accurate warnings of solar flare activity. The solar sail demonstration is a collaborative effort between The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NASA and contractor L’Garde Inc.

A solar sail system, measuring 66 feet on each side was tested in 2005 in the world's largest vacuum chamber. Image Credit: NASA

lists several capabilities solar sails have to offer, such as:

-- Orbital Debris: Orbital debris can be captured and removed from orbit over a period of years using the small solar-sail thrust.

-- De-orbit of spent satellites: Solar sails can be integrated into satellite payloads so that the satellite can be de-orbited at the end of its mission.

-- Station keeping: Using the low propellantless thrust of a solar sail to provide station keeping for unstable in-space locations.

-- propulsion: Payloads free of the Earth’s pull can be continuously and efficiently accelerated to the other planets, or out of the solar system, such as proposed in Project Encounter.

As an example, the GeoStorm project considers locating solar storm warning satellites at pseudo Lagrange points three times further from the Earth by using the to cancel some solar gravitational pull, thus increasing warning time from ~15 minutes to ~45 minutes.

Providing a satellite with a persistent view of northern or southern latitudes, i.e., a “pole-sitter” project. This allows the observational advantages of today’s geosynchronous satellites for orbits with view angles of the northern and southern high-latitudes.

Explore further: Breezy science, plant studies and more head to space station on SpaceX-4

More information: If you’d like to learn more about solar sails, Caltech has a nice “Solar Sailing 101″ page at:… ils/intro/intro.html

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User comments : 9

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5 / 5 (4) Oct 14, 2011
When will the USA or even NASA join the rest of the world in using metric? Isn't losing one multi-million dollar mission enough?
3.7 / 5 (3) Oct 14, 2011

NASA does use metric they are scientists ;-) but if you are going to write an article or relate it to people in this country youuse converted units
1 / 5 (4) Oct 15, 2011
This type of solar sail is very, very weak compared to the electronic solar sail.

The website the article links to derives a mere 9 Newtons of thrust per square kilometer of sail.

I find that our deep space probes have mass anywhere from 1500kg to 12,000kg.

It's incredibly efficient, but also incredibly, incredibly slow.

So doing a slightly simplified linear average of solar constant between 1 and 4 A.U., I find the average thrust along that track is around 1.44 Newtons, because solar constant changes with distance, again, a rough approximation. It's actually requires a bit more calculation I'm not awake to do yet. If you're sending a 10,000kg probe (counting mass of the sail) using a 1 square km sail, on a trip to the outer solar system.

The "average" acceleration along the track amounts to 1.44n/10,000kg, which comes to 0.5184 m/s/HOUR.

The initial acceleration is ~9n/10,000KG, which comes to 3.24m/s/HOUR.

It turns out, this doesnt even overcome the Sun's gravity
1 / 5 (4) Oct 15, 2011
So your solar sail obviously needs to already be moving at Solar Escape Velocity (with respect to it's starting distance from the Sun,) and then the thrust serves to further accelerate the sail. No biggy.

Using a probe of 2000kg, (1500 for the probe itself, and then maybe the sail being 1km squared is probably at least 500kg...): I.e. similar to Yovager, wherease 10,000 would be similar to Cassini.

You'd get 1.44n/2,000kg, which is 2.592m/s/Hour average between 1 and 4 a.u.

You'd get 9n/2,000kg, or 16.2m/s/hour (Even this is only about 80% enough to overcome the Sun's gravity at 1a.u., so you still need to already be moving at solar escape velocity).

but the cool thing about this is the energy efficiency and EPIC maximum velocities it can achieve.

I just estimated the 2,000kg sized probe with 1km^2 sail should be able to reach 4a.u. (1 plus 3,) in under 420 days flight time, having at that time, velocity near 26km/s, which makes rockets and ion engines look pathetic.
1 / 5 (4) Oct 15, 2011
to compute the time and velocity more precisely it takes a bit of work,

I think it involves definite integral 9/(x^2), from 1au to 4au, which antiderivative is -9/x.

If you computer that for 1a.u and 4a.u. in meters, and subtract 1 from 4, in meters, then divide by mass, you should get the reciprocal of time squared.

But when I did that, I got 78 days travel time from to 4a.u., which is a ridiculously small time compared to my prior attempt at a linear approximation. Admittedly, linear approximations actually suck for this sort of thing, but 78 days to 4a.u. sounds a bit.

Def. integral (9/x^2) from A to B.

A is 153,000,000,000m
B is 4A.

this gives a number in units of kg/s^2.

Divide that result by 2000kg, giving units 1/s^2.
Take the reciprocal, giving s^2
Take the square root, giving time.

Convert to days.

78 days.

Seems insane if that's true...God the linear is useless.
1 / 5 (3) Oct 15, 2011
Ah yeah, 78 days is definitely wrong. It's the 9 newtons is a self-referencial term, and should also be in "newtons per kilometer square," which is obfuscated.

I gotta figure out a way to set up the formula to take this into account.

As it's set up the outputs are not realistic, as you reach 2 a.u. before 4a.u. which is ridiculous. I thought something was wrong with this, but I had to catch myself. I post fix shortly.
1 / 5 (3) Oct 15, 2011
hmmm should stick to first intuition...

3.7 / 5 (3) Oct 15, 2011
Yo sickboy
How long before somebody comes along and shows you how obviously wrong you are here also?

I have an idea. In order to begin addressing this compulsive mania of yours, I suggest you admit your errors when they are pointed out by others, admit that your personal knowledge and experience was thus inadequate to attempt what you were attempting, and apologize for your effrontery.

The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. I suggest you go back to the last thread where you attempted to explain galaxies and black holes, OWN UP to your deficits in light of informed criticism, and APOLOGIZE for what you did.

Can you do this?
not rated yet Oct 24, 2011
@NANBANANO ==== where do you get your info???

LightSail-1 is a three-unit Cubesat, which weighs 4.5 kg and measures only 10x10x30 cm.

This satellite is not meant to leave Earth orbit -- let alone the solar system!!

Lightsail -2 is not meant to leave Earth orbit

Lightsail-3 -- might leave Earth orbit -- might!!!