NASA’s diffractive sail project takes a critical step in its development

Artist's conception of the diffractive light candle.  The color patterns are similar to CDs when light strikes them.

Artist’s conception of the diffractive light candle. Color patterns are similar to CDs when you hit them the light.
Image: MacKenzi Martin

A project to develop diffractive solar sails has managed to pass to the third and final phase of NASA’s advanced concepts program. The team behind the project now has two years to further develop this unconventional means of space propulsion.

Besides the two-year extension, draft led by Amber Dubill of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, received 2 million dollars extra, like ad NASA yesterday. Phase 3 funding was provided through the Program Advanced Innovative Concepts (NIAC) of the space agency. Now that they’ve got this extra time and moneyDubill and his companions will have to work on a test mission.

“As we go further into plus in the cosmos, we will need innovative, cutting-edge technologies to power our missions,” NASA Director Bill Nelson said in a statement. “The Concepts Program innovators Advanced of NASA helps unlock visionary ideas, such as novel solar sailsand bring them closer to reality.

The project of these diffractive solar sails managed to pass the phase 2 in 2019. Rochester Institute of Technology engineer Grover Swartzlander led the first two phases of the project and will now continue as a co-investigator.

Solar sails work by using sunlight to power a vehicle. through space, similar to how the wind pushes a sailboat on Water. Instead of using reflective sails like the one developed by the planetary societyEast proposed system would use diffractive candles. A desirable attribute of diffraction is that it causes light to spread out as it travels through a small opening. That’s how Swartzlander described the concept in 2019:

We are embarking on a new era of space travel that requires us to use the thrust of solar radiation in large and thin candles. The conventional wisdom for the last 100 years has been to use a reflective sail, like a layer of metal on a thin polymer, and unfold it in space, but you can also get a force based on the diffraction law. Compared to a reflective sail, we believe that a diffractive sail could be more efficient and better resist the sun’s heat. These candles are transparent, so they won’t absorb much heat from the sun.and we will not have the problem of management of that heat as occurs with a metal surface.

the glue dconventional reflective design is that candles have to be big and thin. They are also limited by the direction of sunlight, since you have to prioritize the thrust power or navigation, but cannot have both. Diffractive light candles, by comparison, employ tiny grids what diffract light in all directions. As NASA puts it, this will allow spacecraft to “make more efficient use of sunlight without sacrificing maneuverability.” Dubill’s proposed design could result in smaller and more agile sails. and tipthe candles will have a kind of Pattern rainbow like the one we see in a CD when we put it under a light.

In phases 1 and 2the team designed, created and tested various diffractive materials for candles. The team also tested and developed control and navigation schemes specific to a future solar mission. In fact, diffractive candles could allow us to place a constellation of satellites in orbit around the Sun’s polar regions. By flying over the Sun’s north and south poles, solar satellites, with a perpetual source of propulsion, could perform unprecedented scientific observations.

“Diffractive solar navigation is a modern version of solar sails”, Dubill explained in the NASA statement. “While this technology can enhance a multitude of missionsis also ready to make a big impact on the heliophysics communitywhat could have an unprecedented tool to be able to develop your solar observations”.

exist two main goals for the next two years: to develop the diffractive sail itself and to develop the mission to create a polar solar orbiter with these sails diffractive.

“We plan to design, optimize and manufacture samples of diffractive material for the sails, and then we have to do optical tests and environmental”, he explained to us Dubill. “In parallel, we plan to develop a mission to create a solar polar orbit sailboat by establishing optimal trajectories to achieve observations dictated by our heliophysicists”.

If all goes according to plan, the concept could crystallize in a real space mission and in a new model of solar satellites.

“Through the expansion of diffractive sail design and the development of the general conceptthe goal is to lay the groundwork for a future test mission using thisto technology”.

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