NASA-backed Solar Sails Could Have Spacecraft “Sailing” to New Heights

Solar sails is a decades-old concept that harnesses the power of the sun to provide propulsion for satellites and other small spacecraft. Now there’s a new take on the proposed technology that could take the idea even further. The Diffractive Solar Sailing Project — led by researchers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory — is a new approach that has achieved backing from NASA. Solar sails would use pressure caused by sunlight to propel a craft through space, but existing reflective solar sail designs have shortcomings that the agency said force tradeoffs between power and navigation. Diffractive lightsails would be built in a way that takes advantage of diffraction to cause light to spread out when it passes through a narrow opening. This way, a spacecraft could more efficiently use sunlight while maintaining full maneuverability. NASA has advanced the concept toward a demonstration mission and it will give the research team $2 million over two years to develop the technology. The next phase of work will focus on optimizing the sail material and performing ground tests. NASA said orbits passing over the Sun’s north and south poles are difficult to achieve using conventional spacecraft propulsion. But it sounded hopeful that diffractive lightsails could help place science spacecraft in orbit around the Sun’s poles to advance areas like space weather forecasting.

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