Solar sails allow a low cost pathway to high speed and ubiquitous exploration of the outer solar system and interstellar space. A slingshot maneuver ~2-5 solar radii distant from the sun can propel light-weight cubesat class spacecraft to near-relativistic speeds. They can reach 0.1% of the speed of light (over 300 km/s or restated as 60AU/year characteristic velocities). Such a technology would markedly transform space exploration, enabling fast missions to distant worlds, effectively turning our sun into a launchpad. A trip to the outer planets would take months, interstellar space could be reached in a few years, and 1000 AU in less than 20 years. We envisage a new generation of breakthrough science missions that were not possible before from probing fundamental laws of nature at the outskirts of our solar system to peering into distant worlds. The need to dive close to the sun places and stringent requirement for materials while the need to go fast places a stringent mass budget on the spacecraft which necessitates the development of novel spacecraft architectures.
The NIAC Phase I study showed that such spacecraft are conceptually possible and the necessary materials could be developed, proving the feasibility and potential for such extreme solar sailing.
In Phase II, they will refine the roadmap for such extreme solar sailing and push the technology readiness level of the key elements and systems. They will fabricate and test novel ultra-lightweight sail materials – metamaterials – capable of withstanding the extremities of the solar corona, and improvement of the spacecraft architecture design to yield ultralow mass while providing maximal payload functionality. They will examine optimal sail support layout taking into account thermomechanical stresses and deformations upon such an extreme perihelion pass. They will explore the utility of extreme solar sailing for two breakthrough mission concepts: Fast Transit Interstellar Probe, which aims to send a probe to 500 AU in 10 years, and a Corona-Net – a precursor mission, which will send a formation flying of extreme solar sails to examine inner heliosphere at high inclinations and at less than 5 solar radii. For both mission concepts they will examine spacecraft communications and power and will explore the design of higher fidelity sail control systems to ensure precise navigation about the Sun and to an interstellar location.
Davoyan and his team, which includes Marco Velli (UCLA’s Earth, Planetary and Space Sciences Department), Les Johnson (NASA Marshall Space Flight Center) and Henry Helvajian (The Aerospace Corporation), receive $500,000 to advance materials, spacecraft architecture, and conduct mission study.
Davoyan’s group is working on unpowered solar sail material, laser pushed optimized solar sail material and ultrathin (10 nanometers thick) solar cells. The ultrathin solar cells would potentially enable greater than 10 kilowatt per kilogram power generation. Ultra-high power with ultra low weight enables ultra high speeds and other fantastic space vehicles.
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
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