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Status of Solar Sail Propulsion: Moving Toward an Interstellar ProbeNASA's In-Space Propulsion Technology Program has developed the first-generation of solar sail propulsion systems sufficient to accomplish inner solar system science and exploration missions. These first-generation solar sails, when operational, will range in size from 40 meters to well over 100 meters in diameter and have an areal density of less than 13 grams-per-square meter. A rigorous, multiyear technology development effort culminated last year in the testing of two different 20-meter solar sail systems under thermal vacuum conditions. This effort provided a number of significant insights into the optimal design and expected performance of solar sails as well as an understanding of the methods and costs of building and using them. In a separate effort, solar sail orbital analysis tools for mission design were developed and tested. Laboratory simulations of the effects of long-term space radiation exposure were also conducted on two candidate solar sail materials. Detailed radiation and charging environments were defined for mission trajectories outside the protection of the earth's magnetosphere, in the solar wind environment. These were used in other analytical tools to prove the adequacy of sail design features for accommodating the harsh space environment. Preceding, and in conjunction with these technology efforts, NASA sponsored several mission application studies for solar sails, including one that would use an evolved sail capability to support humanity's first mission into nearby interstellar space. The proposed mission is called the Interstellar Probe. The Interstellar Probe might be accomplished in several ways. A 200-meter sail, with an areal density approaching 1 gram-per-square meter, could accelerate a robotic probe to the very edge of the solar system in just under 20 years from launch. A sail using the technology just demonstrated could make the same mission, but take significantly longer. Conventional chemical propulsion systems would require even longer flight times. Spinner sails of the type being explored by the Japanese may also be a good option, but the level of maturity in that technology is not clear. While the technology to support a 200-meter, ultralightweight sail mission is not yet in hand, the recent NASA investments in solar sail technology are an essential first step toward making it a reality. This paper will describe the status of solar sail propulsion within NASA, near-term solar sail mission applications, and the plan to advance the technology to the point where the Interstellar Probe mission can be flown.
Document ID
Acquisition Source
Marshall Space Flight Center
Document Type
Conference Paper
Johnson, Les
(NASA Marshall Space Flight Center Huntsville, AL, United States)
Young, Roy M.
(NASA Marshall Space Flight Center Huntsville, AL, United States)
Montgomery, Edward E., IV
(NASA Marshall Space Flight Center Huntsville, AL, United States)
Date Acquired
August 24, 2013
Publication Date
August 13, 2006
Subject Category
Spacecraft Design, Testing And Performance
Distribution Limits
Work of the US Gov. Public Use Permitted.
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