New NASA Spacecraft Will Be Propelled By Light

Feb 4, 2016

Photo credit: NASA/MSFC

By Mark Strauss

In 1418, European sailing vessels left their ports to explore the Atlantic Ocean, initiating a great Age of Discovery.

In 2018, a small space probe will unfurl a sail and begin a journey to a distant asteroid. It’s the first NASA spacecraft that will venture beyond Earth’s orbit propelled entirely by sunlight. This technology could enable inexpensive exploration of the solar system and, eventually, interstellar space.

The $16 million probe, called the Near-Earth Asteroid Scout, is one of the 13 science payloads that NASA announced Tuesday. They will hitch a ride on the inaugural flight of the Space Launch System—the megarocket designed to replace the space shuttle and, one day, send the Orion spacecraft to Mars.

It will take 2.5 years for the NEA Scout to reach its destination, a smallish asteroid named 1991 VG. But it won’t be a leisurely cruise. The continuous thrust provided by sunlight hitting the solar sail will accelerate the probe to an impressive 63,975 mph (28.6 km/s) relative to the sun.

Given enough time, a spacecraft equipped with a solar sail can eventually accelerate to higher speeds than a similarly sized spacecraft propelled by a conventional chemical rocket.


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3 comments on “New NASA Spacecraft Will Be Propelled By Light

  • @OP In 2018, a small space probe will unfurl a sail and begin a journey to a distant asteroid. It’s the first NASA spacecraft that will venture beyond Earth’s orbit propelled entirely by sunlight.

    The Solar sail concept is viable in the inner Solar System, using the energy from photons to provide thrust.

    This technology could enable inexpensive exploration of the solar system and, eventually, interstellar space.

    This is wishful thinking, as the strength of the the sunlight in the outer Solar System and interstellar space, is too weak unless some sort of narrow concentrated laser beam is directed on to the sail from some external power source as is suggested on the link.

    @NAT GEOG link – “We could build a big laser,” he says. “As the sail moves away from the sun and the sunlight gets dimmer, you could then shine the laser light on it to keep pushing it. The laser remains here in solar orbit, so it’s continuing to push the sail faster and faster as it leaves the solar system.”

    Using the Solar Wind for thrust, would diminish as a probe moved away from the Sun and would likely be useless beyond the Heliopause.



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  • bonnie
    Feb 5, 2016 at 10:43 am

    laser would need energy

    Turn off completely unnecessary power suckers, such as the Luxor Sky Beam in Las V. Bar outlandish selfish usage.

    The most likely configuration, would be a large orbiting Sun-facing solar array, powering an outward facing laser beam pushing the craft through the outer solar System. Apart from any power losses, this would balance the outward forces of the photons on the array, with the inward forces generated by the laser, and so reduce the orbital corrections needed on the power unit.



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