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We will reach the confines of the Solar System thanks to a new type of solar sail

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A new solar sail, developed by US scientists supported by NASA, could be especially effective for deep space navigation: It would allow any spacecraft using it as a propulsion system to move slightly away from the Sun and still benefit from a strong pulse of photons from sunlight.

A team of researchers led by Amber Dubill of the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in the United States, and supported by NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, is developing a new kind of solar sail that will allow spacecraft to be propelled through deep space. In addition to taking future spacecraft to the limits of the Solar System, it will make it possible to reach currently inaccessible regions of the star king and to fully understand the relationship between the Sun and the planets that revolve around it.

A step forward in solar sail technology

According to a press release, in the same way that sails capture the wind to propel boats or ships across the sea, solar sails use the pressure exerted by sunlight to push spacecraft through space. They are essentially “giant mirrors”: These solar sails use the small amount of momentum that photons of light impart when they bounce off the reflective surface of the sail.

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Current solar sail designs seek to provide an inexpensive way to accelerate spacecraft to speeds that would not be possible with rockets and fuel. These designs of reflective solar sails that have been worked on to date tend to be large and thin, and are limited by the direction of sunlight: they must compulsorily reconcile between their power and the course of navigation.

However, according to a NASA statement, the new project multiplies the potential of solar sails into the future: the diffractive solar navigation developed by American specialists takes advantage of a different property of light called diffraction, which focuses on the propagation or bending of light around the obstacles it passes through. Using tiny gratings embedded within thin films, the sail diffracts light to provide a force that will be more efficient for orbital maneuvers, without having to move a large, flimsy structure.

Long voyages and heliophysics

As explained in an article published in Universe Today, the new technology has significant advantages over existing solar sails, including ability to turn. That’s a big problem for most solar sails, which lose effectiveness if they’re not directly facing the Sun. Diffraction causes light to scatter when it passes through an opening: using this property in a sail material solar would allow a spacecraft to move away from the Sun and still receive the pressure of light, which would push it in whichever direction it turns.

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Together with the great opportunity that they would provide to make long trips to the far reaches of the Solar System viable, the new diffractive solar sails would be key in the field of heliophysics, that is, the science that studies the physical connections between the Sun and the system of planets that orbit it. It is that they will allow access to regions of the Sun that today are very difficult to study, because for example traditional propulsion technologies do not work well around the poles of the Sun, given the magnetic interference in that space.

In the same sense, the traditional or reflective solar sails they also would not work properly, since the incident light that would fall on them in these places would push them further from the Sun or even paralyze them.

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