Sailing on Light

Solar sails offer the opportunity to travel between planets with no consumables, extending mission life and possibly opening new destinations. However, the technology is still nascent. A challenge that would unlock new avenues of exploration while being achievable in the next decade:

Using only a Solar sail for propulsion, navigate a spacecraft from low Earth orbit to low lunar orbit.

This challenge would require advances in material science, navigation, and spacecraft autonomy. If successful, these technologies could dramatically reduce costs to explore our Solar system, opening up other destinations the way cubesats have opened up LEO-related investigations.

Welcome @jmasiero! Thanks so much for posting about this very interesting area for breakthroughs. Although I know very little about the topic, at a cursory glance it appears that a future XPRIZE on solar sailing could certainly build upon the learnings from LightSail2 and Near-Earth Asteroid Scout

Would love to hear feedback from others in the Community about the idea and in particular the proposed target by @jmasiero: “navigate a spacecraft from low Earth orbit to low lunar orbit.

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Hi @Jekan, @avi_loeb, @easphaug, @Spacearch, @spacecase33 - Do you have any inputs to share on this topic?

@jmasiero -
I like it in general, but am concerned that the impact on our lives in the present will be negligible. I quote our founder’s wise words that we want to achieve breakthroughs that can have a positive impact on the lives of 1 billion people.

Do you think we could somehow fit this topic to help people in the present?

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I would only add “in the fastest time” …since solar sailing speed is relatively slow and would seem to be dependent on the amount (and density) of solar wind, direction of solar wind, ‘pulsation’ of solar wind, etc.

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Good call.

Ok, so…improvement in solar sail technology may facilitate faster travel to future (pending) space stations (around the Earth or Moon) and/or Moon bases. Apart form the fact that government and private interests are now determined to build said bases (whether or not there is present and provable benefit to Earth)…and to the extent that space habitation, exploration, and development may benefit Earth (see: ‘Space on Earth’ by Charles S. Cockell for persuasive arguments to this end)…then any new tech that may enable local space travel – without also increasing the tally of orbital debris (‘space junk’*) like early rocket stages – would by extension benefit Earth (!)

Ok, that was general and theoretical…but I think also a good starting point (towards addressing your point)

  • I think that eliminating (‘cleaning up’) space junk / orbital debris (new methods, technologies, or missions) would actually be a more pressing/beneficial XPrize challenge …especially given the current ‘space race’ (i.e., the private sector, and, new State space-race participants like China, India and the UAE)

Now that we’ve entered the breakthroughs stage of the program, I think it’s worth discussing this there, so I’m moving the discussion.

Hi @shl and @manuel.ntumba - Given your experience what are your thoughts on using solar sails to travel between planets?

Really liking the sound of an XPRIZE to clean up as much space debris safely in the shortest amount of time…how exciting!

I wonder what kind of testing could be performed on Earth for these cleaning “vessels” (for lack of ability to think of a better word) before they could be hopefully tested in space?

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@JessicaYoon - Well, perhaps something like NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab (NBL)* only bigger (possibly), to account for large orbital objects e.g., (spent rocket stages, old fuel tanks, etc.)…? What do you think?

One thought I have is: Will the COST increase the higher the orbital band (i.e., the further out in space the ‘junk’ or debris is orbiting)?