NASA, international partners consider solar sail for Deep Space Gateway

It sounds like it comes straight from an Arthur C. Clarke story, but an international team of engineers is considering equipping a future human outpost orbiting the Moon with a solar sail. Harnessing the slight pressure of solar radiation, a super-thin reflective film might help steer the Deep Space Gateway, or DSG, which is being designed by five space agencies to succeed the International Space Station.

The solar sail concept was presented last month by the Canadian Space Agency, or CSA, at the latest meeting of ISS partners. The event, specifically dedicated to DSG planning, was held at the European space center, ESTEC, in Noordwijk, Netherlands.

At this point, ISS partners are still debating whether to use the sail for practical purposes on the near-lunar station, or only as an add-on experiment to demonstrate its future potential, including possible use on a Mars-bound spacecraft. One of the declared goals of the DSG is to test technologies which could pave the way to the first human journey to the Red Planet.

It is likely the first time solar sailing technology has been considered for a spacecraft carrying humans. Only Japan’s IKAROS, launched with aboard the Venus-bound Akatsuki spacecraft in 2010, has demonstrated controlled flight by light. The Planetary Society’s LightSail 2 spacecraft,scheduled to launch next year, would be the second.

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