In his youth, NASA technologist Les Johnson was riveted by the 1974 novel “The Mote in God’s Eye,” by Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven, in which an alien spacecraft propelled by solar sails visits humanity. Today, Johnson and a NASA team are preparing to test a similar technology.
NASA continues to unfurl plans for solar sail technology as a promising method of deep space transportation. The agency cleared a key technology milestone in January with the successful deployment of one of four identical solar sail quadrants. The deployment was showcased Jan. 30 at Redwire Corp.’s new facility in Longmont, Colorado. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, leads the solar sail team, comprised of prime contractor Redwire, which developed the deployment mechanisms and the nearly 100-foot-long booms, and subcontractor NeXolve, of Huntsville, which provided the sail membrane. In addition to leading the project, Marshall developed the algorithms needed to control and navigate with the sail when it flies in space.
The sail is a propulsion system powered by sunlight reflecting from the sail, much like a sailboat reflects the wind. While just one quarter of the sail was unfurled in the deployment at Redwire, the complete sail will measure 17,780 square feet when fully deployed, with the thickness less than a human hair at 2 and a half microns. The sail is made of a polymer material coated with aluminum.