RIT faculty and alumni receive NASA funding to develop new diffractive solar sail concepts

RIT faculty and alumni receive NASA funding to develop new diffractive solar sail concepts

Press release from: Rochester Institute of Technology
Posted: Thursday July 7th 2022

NASA has announced new funding for a project led by Rochester Institute of Technology alumni, faculty and students that could propel spacecraft into orbit around the sun’s poles for the first time. NASA’s NIAC (Innovative Advanced Concepts) program will provide Phase III funding to the Diffractive Solar Sailing project directed by Amber Dubill ’20 (mechanical Engineering), ’20 MS (mechanical Engineering) from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

The feasibility of the concept has already been studied under the NIAC Phase I and Phase II fellowships, led by Professor Grover Swartzlander by RIT Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science, who continues as a co-investigator on the project. While reflective solar sails have been discussed as a possibility for space travel for decades and the first spacecraft to use the technology launched in 2010, the project team believe diffractive solar sails have more potential for reach difficult places such as the north and south poles of the sun. .

“In Phase II of the NIAC program, we demonstrated that a diffractive sail could accomplish the mission with a much smaller sail compared to a reflective sail,” Swartzlander said. “This diffractive sail that we are proposing would also generally be less complicated because it can be oriented towards the sun and it will have fewer awkward angles to manage. The combination of radiation pressure and solar gravity allows us to reach interesting orbits around the sun.

The new Phase III award will grant the research team $2 million over two years to optimize the sail material and conduct ground testing. RIT will receive nearly $500,000 of the grant, which it will use to purchase equipment and fund graduate and undergraduate student researchers. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and RIT are also collaborating on the project with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and BEAM Co., a Florida-based company that develops advanced optical materials and technologies.

“The diffractive solar sail is a modern take on the decades-old vision of light sails. While this technology can enhance a multitude of mission architectures, it is poised to have a huge impact on the heliophysics community’s needs for unique solar observing capabilities,” Dubill said. “With our team’s combined expertise in optics, aerospace, traditional solar navigation, and metamaterials, we hope to enable scientists to see the sun like never before.”

Swartzlander said he hopes within a decade there could be a demonstration mission to test diffractive solar sails.

“As we venture further into the cosmos than ever before, we will need innovative, cutting-edge technologies to drive our missions,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. solar sails – and bring them closer to reality.

US Senator Charles Schumer said, “I was proud to have helped secure this investment which will be used by RIT researchers to support NASA’s development of new cutting-edge solar space technology. I commend RIT for being a key contributor in these efforts that will blaze a new trail in space travel and enable new understandings of our solar system.

“The Rochester Institute of Technology has a long-standing reputation as a national leader in scientific research and innovation,” said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. “I am proud to have worked to secure this NASA grant to advance this transformational solar sail research, and I will continue to fight to bring federal dollars to New York’s academic institutions.”

“Once again, the Rochester Institute for Technology is proving its national leadership in high-tech innovation,” said Congressman Joe Morelle. “I would like to congratulate RIT for this exciting collaboration with NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program, which will advance space exploration through scientific discovery. I was proud to support this proposal and look forward to RIT’s continued growth and success through this partnership.

For more information, contact Luke Auburn at 585-490-3198, [email protected], or on Twitter: @lukeauburn.

PICTURE AVAILABLE: https://www.rit.edu/ritnews/images/pics_admin/solar-sail-04_patch.jpg
Caption: The mission patch for the Diffractive Solar Sailing project, which received Phase III funding from NASA’s NIAC (Nasa Innovative Advanced Concepts) program.

Diffractive solar sails, depicted in this concept illustration, could enable missions in hard-to-reach places, such as orbits above the sun’s poles. 1 credit: MacKenzi Martin


Rochester Institute of Technology is home to leading creators, entrepreneurs, innovators and researchers. Founded in 1829, RIT enrolls 19,700 students in more than 200 professional and career-oriented programs, making it one of the largest private universities in the United States.

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