NASA Funds Work On Solar Sails That Can Steer

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When we think of solar power, we usually think of photovoltaic technology, or technology that converts light from the sun into electricity. But there are plenty of other ways to use the sun’s power. On Earth, we also use solar heat for things like solar ovens or solar water heaters, for example. Now, NASA is funding another solar technology concept in space, but with a big improvement that could make it more useful.

The basic idea of this concept is the solar sail. The idea has been around for hundreds of years, with Johannes Kepler telling Galileo, “Provide ships or sails adapted to the heavenly breezes, and there will be some who will brave even that void.” The idea came from observing that the tails of comets always point away from the sun, which gave evidence that there was some kind of “wind” coming from the sun. Many concept designs have been produced over the years, and spacecraft with solar sails have even appeared in fiction (including the popular Star Trek and Star Wars franchises).

With sails, you need a way to steer the ship, and in a vacuum, a spaceship really can’t use a rudder the way a ship can. Ideas like multiple different shaped sails like the Bajoran Solar Sailer in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine seem like they’d work, but they’d be even larger, more complex, and susceptible to damage than normal sails (which would already have to be a lot bigger than Count Dooku’s ship above).

Instead of having a large, reflective surface to pull a spacecraft using radiation pressure from the sun, the team NASA is funding a solar sail design that’s diffractive, and can “bend” light.

“As we venture farther out into the cosmos than ever before, we’ll need innovative, cutting-edge technologies to drive our missions,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program helps to unlock visionary ideas – like novel solar sails – and bring them closer to reality.”

The ability to bend light hitting the sail instead of just reflecting it back could help spacecraft equipped with it be able to actually steer. This would mean the efficient and cheap option of using the sun for propulsion wouldn’t come with the sacrifice of not being able to readily maneuver the craft. If it works out well enough, they might not need any propellant fuel at all, even for thrusters to make small course changes.

It could also help make it easier to put satellites in orbit above and below the sun (its north and south poles). The inability to put spacecraft there for research has made it harder to study the sun, and limits human understanding of space weather. such a steerable solar sail satellite could greatly improve our ability to predict and deal with solar storms.

The design has already been through two phases of research, and was promising enough for NASA to select it for phase III. Work under Phase III will optimize the sail material and perform ground tests in support of this conceptual solar mission.

Featured image: Concept art of what the solar sail could end up looking like. MacKenzi Martin, NASA.


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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

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