NASA is working on a solar sail that curves light to propel a spacecraft

Artist’s impression of the new refracting solar sail – © MacKenzi Martin / NASA

The US space agency recently announced that it is actively working on a refracting solar sail. By bending light before it hits it, this device can propel spacecraft more efficiently than conventional technologies.

Surprising way to pay space

In the age of chemical and ion rockets, deploying a giant sail to circumnavigate the universe may seem outdated, but it’s a surprisingly promising approach. Solar sails aim to propel spacecraft by exploiting the pressure exerted by our star’s light, when photons bounce off its surface. Although this power is pretty weak, with enough surface area, light enough material and a lot of patience, it can build up to train and guide the machine.

The concept has been around for decades, and has already been tested in space on several occasions, starting with a Japanese space yacht. IKARO In 2010. Recently, the project light sail 2 subordinate Planetary Society Show how radiation from Sun They can be used to change the orbit of a spacecraft using a sail.

However, the technology can still be improved: solar sails generate maximum thrust when direct sunlight hits them, limiting their operating range and maneuverability. New refractive solar sail from NASA It is specifically designed to capture and exploit this type of radiation more effectively.

– Vadim Sadovsky /

As its name suggests, this technique is based on diffraction, which occurs when waves encounter obstacles or apertures that disrupt their propagation. In order to take advantage of this phenomenon, a refracting solar sail would have small nets embedded in thin films, effectively diffusing sunlight that hits it to improve the speed and maneuverability of the spacecraft it is attached to.

important effects

The engineers behind the concept believe that such technology would allow spacecraft to reach regions of the universe and perform tasks beyond the reach of current hardware. Thus, a constellation of spacecraft could be placed in orbit around the sun’s poles in order to improve our ability to predict space weather.

The solar refracting sail project was selected as part of the third phase of the program NIAC (Innovative Advanced Concepts) subordinate NASA. The next step will be to improve the properties of the material from which the sail will be made and conduct tests on Earth, in preparation for future space experiments.

As we go further into the universe than ever before, we will need advanced and innovative technologies to carry out our missions. ‘, he explains Bill Nelson, director of NASA. ” NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts Program helps explore conceptual concepts, such as new solar sails, and bring them closer to reality.. »

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