Solar sails aid interplanetary travel, as per recent research.

Depiction of IKAROS space-probe with solar sail in flight: credit: Andrzej Mirecki

By means of space exploration, we have reached not only our closest celestial neighbor, the moon, but also ventured into the expansive territory of our expansive solar system, home to colossal bodies like Saturn and Jupiter.

Back in 1982, Voyager 2 had ventured past Uranus at a proximity unmatched by any other spacecraft to date. Presently, Voyager 2 continues its journey through the Pavo constellation, 17.9 light hours away from our planet, nearly five decades after it was launched.

There have been limited satellite missions of a similar nature in recent times. The biggest barrier is the expense, however, the timeframe is also a consideration. A considerable amount of time, approximately a decade, is required to plan and construct a space vehicle for lengthy expeditions, which entails years of meticulous calculations for the design. Considering the amount of time necessary for a satellite to travel to faraway destinations, it seems improbable that we will have another opportunity to observe celestial bodies in the near future.

A group of researchers, headed by Slava Turyshev from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, who were responsible for launching the Voyager satellites in 1977, are eager to resume space exploration. The team suggests a new mode of transportation that has the potential to enable us to travel to the stars in a quicker and more economical manner.

Turyshev and over twenty researchers from Europe and the US have suggested a cost-effective, swift and lightweight mode of transport by integrating miniature satellite units with a solar energy system, as described in a paper released on the arXiv preprint server.

Utilizing the power of the sun's radiation to generate propulsion is known as solar sailing. The LightSail-2 project by the Planetary Society showcased successful advancements in this technology through a well-received crowdfunding mission conducted in 2019.

According to the scholars, solar sails gain propulsion through the utilization of light, reflective and less dense materials which reflect sun rays to drive a spacecraft while in the outer space. The persistent photon pressure emanating from the sun generates force, making it unnecessary to rely on bulky and disposable propellants used in traditional chemical and electric propulsion methods that curtail mission duration and potential observation spots.

According to some individuals, sails offer a more cost-effective alternative to the pricey equipment currently utilized for propulsion. They also claim that the constant solar photon pressure emanating from the sun can be harnessed for diverse vehicular maneuvers, such as rapid orbital plane changes or hovering.

According to the report, advances in solar sails and miniaturization over the last decade have enhanced to a level where they could potentially facilitate cost-effective and exciting missions to venture deeper and quicker into the outer areas of our solar system.

The fusion of these two technologies has been labeled by researchers as the Sundiver Concept.

The report suggests that sailcraft which are speedy, economical, and easy to steer are capable of traversing beyond the ecliptic plane, which can lead to more reasonably-priced exploration of the solar system. This development has enormous potential for the fields of heliophysics, planetary science, and astrophysics.

Thanks to its improved agility, the spacecraft is capable of conveniently transporting insignificant loads to various locations when necessary, and has the ability to attach itself to corresponding detachable vessels. According to the researchers, significant cost savings can be achieved through the use of the sun and a smaller carrier that does not need a specific launch site. They note that the current high costs are largely due to reliance on chemical propulsion, which is slow and expensive and cannot sustain the current approach to exploring the solar system. An innovative method needs to be employed.

According to the Universe Today website, it was noted this week that NASA's support for the project could lead to the emergence of a group of speedy solar sailing probes that could traverse the solar system in a matter of years. It would be quite a spectacle to behold.


Slava G. Turyshev et al, Science opportunities with solar sailing smallsats, arXiv (2023). DOI: 10.48550/arxiv.2303.14917

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