Previous attempts to power spacecraft with giant solar sails, like the abandoned Soviet-Russian Znmaya project and the successful Japanese IKAROS, relied on giant, reflective, metallic sails to move through space and to reflect light back to Earth. Now, RIT scientist Grover Swartzlander is now calling to abandon these reflective materials in favor of metamaterials, synthetically created materials with properties that don’t occur naturally. Swartzlander’s solar sails would power CubeSats, the tiny satellites that have become en vogue due to their low cost and ability to be built with low cost. “CubeSats are becoming of great national importance for science, security and commercial purposes. The potential to raise, de-orbit or station-keep hundreds of CubeSats from low Earth orbit would be a recognized game changer that would build enthusiasm and advocacy among the growing small-satellite community of students, entrepreneurs and aerospace scientists and engineers,” Swartzlander said in a press statement.
Speaking to NASA in March, Swartzlander said that his “proposed new aerospace architecture could, for example, provide a low cost and efficient means for raising hundreds of low-Earth orbit CubeSats and other satellites to higher orbits.” The metamaterial Swartzlander is proposing would have several advantages over the reflective materials of the past. Swartzlander’s sails would have lower heat absorption rates due to their diffractive nature which would scatter solar rays, and the ability to re-use what Swartzlander told NASA was “the abundant untapped momentum of solar photons” to fly through the cosmos. Swartzlander is leading an exploratory study through NASA’s Concepts program. With nine months and $125,000, his research team will work on a NASA satellite called the Near-Earth Asteroid Scout, or NEA Scout for short. A robotic reconnaissance mission, NEA Scout is a CubeSat meant to explore asteroids. NEA Scout would be NASA’s first craft to be powered by sails. “Developing a sail to harness the sun’s energy to fly through space was once thought impossible. Just in this decade we’ve seen innovation and progress on this promising technology and NEA Scout is another step to using solar sails to explore our solar system,” said Mr Joe Matus, NEA Scout project manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, in a press statement from June.