Planetary Society Exploring Solar Sail Flight

The Planetary Society is examining whether it can do a solar sail mission. The society attempted to test this experimental propulsion technology in 2005 with its Cosmos 1 mission; however, the Russian Volna rocket failed to reach orbit.

The Pasadena, Calif.-based non-profit is explore several options, according to its website:

NASA built two nanosail spacecraft: One was launched on board the new Falcon 1 in August of 2008, but the booster failed and the spacecraft never made it to Earth orbit. Its twin craft was not used and remains in storage. Budget constraints have now forced NASA to abandon its sail technology program, so they asked us to consider using the remaining nanosail for our solar sail flight.

We are now looking into the possibility of upgrading the nanosail and turning it into a true solar sail spacecraft. This will require that it be maneuverable and controllable from Earth, and that its radio system and instrumentation will be able to verify its operation. Nanosail-D had none of these features, but we are now talking to the spacecraft developers about ways to augment original design.

The other option involves a Russian proposal:

Our Russian colleagues at the Space Research Institute (IKI) in Moscow, who worked with us on Cosmos 1, have also proposed a new, smaller approach. As with the nanosail design, they propose a smaller spacecraft projected to have better performance with higher acceleration than our original solar sail. Acceleration is proportional to area divided by mass — and the mass of these new designs is getting really small. The challenge is to have sufficient control of the sails’ “attitude,” so as to make it possible to “fly” on light. This means steering with the sail pointed towards the Sun, or — as we sailors say — tacking.

Either the nanosail or a different mini-sail will need a radio system for tracking and telemetry, an imaging system, and perhaps a micro-accelerometer to measure the solar acceleration. We developed these instruments for Cosmos 1 and may be able to use them on a smaller spacecraft.

The society is working with IKI and NASA to evaluate options different options and is seeking private support:

Our plan is to conclude these studies this summer. Then we will announce the most feasible option for flight for the first solar sail mission. Meanwhile, we and Cosmos Studios continue to seek additional private support and sponsorship for the first solar sail mission.