ESA engineers are working on using the thinnest material known in the world to create lighter, more efficient solar sails,media reported. By making solar sails out of graphene plates, ESA aims to create solar sails that can advance unmanned interstellar missions.
Since the early 20th century, when Konstantin Tsiolkovsky first proposed solar sails as a way of propulsion for spacecraft, solar sails have been considered a way to advance. By using sunlight or lasers to align huge sails, the pressure of photons hitting the sails can generate thrust that pushes the ship forward like a sailboat. The acceleration of such a system is small, but stable. What’s more, it will require zero propellant, so the detector will be very light. However, the sails themselves increase considerable quality and reduce the efficiency of the system.
So far, solar sails have been used to help some satellites with attitude control, as well as two demonstration missions, but the latter uses polymer sails made of polyimide and polyimide. Although these materials can form extremely thin sheets, these polymeric materials make burlap a cloth look like the best silk compared to atomic-thick graphene.
To see if graphene was promising as a sail material, the researchers took a 3mm wide sheet of graphene and threw it into a vacuum tower 100 meters (330 feet) high. When it fell freely, the sail was hit by a series of 1-watt lasers, which caused it to accelerate up to 1m/s2. This is only a small part of gravity, but ESA says that in space, this acceleration will eventually form a huge velocity.
As part of ESA’s Business Incubator program, SCALE nanotechnology start-ups are currently looking for commercial partners to scale up the system and test it in orbit.
Santiago Cartamil-Bueno, head of the graphene sail team and head of SCALE Nanotech: “Making graphene is relatively simple and can easily be extended to kilometer-wide sails, although deploying giant sails can be a challenge. “