Solar activity sometimes causes disturbances through massive flares, but the energy can also be used to increase in-space propulsion capability – harnessing solar power with solar sails could expand future exploration potential by increasing spacecraft efficiency and lower operating costs. NASA recently announced plans to advance the technology by rolling out the largest solar sail ever created – in 2015, the next generation solar sail spacecraft will deploy and operate a sail with an area 7 times larger than any that has been flown in space. NASA’s Solar Sail mission is one of three proposed Technology Demonstration Missions set to “transform space communications, deep space navigation and in-space propulsion capabilities”.
Solar sails use radiation pressure from star and laser light to push large and ultra-thin mirrors up to high speeds. NASA has been testing the technology in small-scale for some time, however it wasn’t until Japan’s IKAROS launched on May 21, 2010 that a solar sail powered spacecraft was successfully deployed in outer space. NASA’s NanoSail-D — a 100 square foot sail that re-entered earth’s atmosphere in May of this yea r– lacked maneuvering capability, but it did collect valuable de-orbiting data that will contribute to this upcoming mission’s success.
This sail is not just an energy-saving propulsion system – its lower-cost technology could convert small satellites into space debris cleaners. This will be extremely useful when you consider the Space Surveillance Network‘s latest estimate that there are as many as 6,000 tons or 20,000 pieces of space debris in orbit. Much of this is left over from 50 years of abandoned spacecraft. Satellites fall dead quite frequently — the 2.4 ton ROSAT spacecraft crashed to the earth in November.
Advancing concepts like solar sail-powered space travel is tantalizing to renewable energy enthusiasts and may prove critical as a method of cleaning up after defunct operations. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is collaborating with NASA and L’Garde Inc. on the project, which includes test planning, flight hardware, launch, ground operations, and post-testing assessment and reporting.
Other technologies in NASA’s upcoming demonstrations include the laser communications relay and a deep space atomic clock. The laser communications relay is a cost-effective optical communications system that will improve data rates by 100 times and will help bring on the future of robotic exploration. The deep space atomic clock is a miniaturized mercury-ion atomic clock that will increase the accuracy of GPS and the speed of one-way radio communications. Altogether, the three missions will cost about $175 million and will be funded in part by partners who plan on using the technologies as part of future space missions.