NASA has proposed a deep space mission that would utilise a 1,700-square-meter solar sail to power a spacecraft that would measure the Sun’s magnetic field structure and coronal mass ejections. The Solar Cruiser is one of two proposed missions from the agency’s heliophysics program of which one will be selected to be launched with NASA’s IMAP probe in 2024.
The two heliophysics mission proposals received a combined $400,000 in funding for nine-month mission concept studies. The first is the Solar Cruiser and the second is the Science-Enabling Technologies for Heliophysics (SETH). The SETH spacecraft will test an innovative new optical communications technology and study solar energetic neutral atoms.
At the conclusion of the nine-month period, one of the two missions will be selected based on its “potential technology and science value and the feasibility of development plans.” The selected mission will hitch a ride with NASA’s Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe as part of the agency’s cost-saving rideshare initiative along with two other science missions.
Over the years, there have been several spacecraft that have utilised solar sails in various applications but few that have used the technology exclusively for propulsion. In May 2010, Japan’s JAXA launched the IKAROS spacecraft, the first spacecraft to exclusively use a solar sail for propulsion.
Since IKAROS, four other solar sail spacecraft have been launched. The first was NASA’s NanoSail-D spacecraft, which was launched in November 2010. The next three were part of the Planetary Society’s LightSail program. The first two ended in failure while the third, LightSail-2 successfully raised its orbit using nothing but the sun.
The IKAROS spacecraft used a 200-square-meter polyimide sail, NanoSail-D a 9-square-meter sail, Cosmos-1 a 600-square-meter sail, and LightSail-1 and 2 carried 32-square-meter sails. The 1,700-square-meter Solar Cruiser sail will, as a result, be the largest ever launched and deployed by a considerable margin.