In space exploration, we have not only reached the closest celestial body, the Moon, but we have also ventured into the vast territory of the Solar System. In 1982, the Voyager 2 probe reached beyond Uranus, reaching a distance never before reached by any other spacecraft. Currently, Voyager 2 continues its journey through the constellation of Pavo, 17.9 light hours away from Earth, almost fifty years after its launch. A new study suggests that in the future, solar sails may help us in interplanetary travel.
The biggest obstacles in these endeavors are the cost, but also the time required to reach such distant goals. Planning and building spacecraft for these long expeditions also take time. On average, it takes about a decade of research and years of meticulous calculations for the entire design. Considering these elements, it seems unlikely that we will have another opportunity to observe celestial bodies like Uranus in the near future.
A group of researchers, led by Slava Turyshev of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), responsible for the launch of the Voyager probes in 1977, is eager to resume space exploration. The team suggests a new mode of transport that has the potential to reduce costs and shorten all times. We are talking about an economical, fast, and light transport mode that uses miniature probes with solar sails for interplanetary travel, as described in an article published on arXiv (ref.).
The use of solar radiation to generate propulsion is known as solar sailing. LightSail-2 project of the Planetary Society has demonstrated the progress of this technology through a crowdfunding mission conducted in 2019. According to the scholars, solar sails gain propulsion through the use of lightweight, reflective, and less dense materials while in space.
The pressure of photons emitted by the Sun generates a force that surpasses the use of bulky propellants used in traditional chemical and electric propulsion methods. According to some research, sails offer a cheaper alternative to expensive propulsion equipment. Furthermore, they claim that the constant pressure of solar photons can be exploited for various vehicle maneuvers, such as rapid changes in the orbital plane or stationary flight.
Advances in solar sails and the miniaturization of probes could facilitate economic and exciting missions to venture quickly into the outer areas of our Solar System. The fusion of these two technologies has been labeled by researchers as the Sundiver Concept. Thanks to its improved agility, the spacecraft can comfortably carry insignificant loads wherever we want. Moreover, the technology would also allow docking with large vehicles. According to the researchers, it is possible to achieve considerable cost savings through the use of the Sun and a carrier that does not require a launch site.
Current costs are largely due to dependence on chemical propulsion. This type of propulsion is slow and expensive and cannot sustain the current approach to Solar System exploration. We need an innovative method. The support for the NASA and space agencies’ project will be very important. These funds would lead to the creation of fast solar sail probes that would cross the Solar System in just a few years.