Graphene Solar Sails Viability Demonstrated by ESA

A sail made of graphene has actually passed preliminary tests created to reveal its viability as a product for solar sails.

According to the European Space Agency (ESA) light sails are among the most promising existing area propulsion innovations that could make it possible for humans to explore other star systems within many years.

Traditional spacecraft carry fuel to power their journeys and use complicated orbital manoeuvres around other planets. The weight of the fuel makes them hard to release and complex flyby manoeuvres substantially extend the journey.

Solar sails do not need an onboard source of fuel, making future spacecraft lighter and easier to release.

So far, 2 spacecraft flown over the past decade have shown the technology, but they utilized sails made of polyimide and mylar, a polyester film.

To evaluate whether graphene could be utilized as a sail, scientists used a scrap just 3mm throughout. They dropped it from a 100m high tower in Bremen, Germany, to evaluate whether it worked under vacuum and in microgravity.

Once the sail remained in free-fall they shone a series of laser lights onto it, to see whether it would function as a solar sail. Shining a 1W laser made the sail accelerate by approximately 1m/s2, similar to the velocity of an office lift, but for solar sails the velocity continues as long as sunshine keeps hitting the sails, taking spacecraft to progressively greater speeds.

"Making graphene is relatively simple and could be easily scaled up to kilometre-wide sails, though the deployment of a giant sail will be a serious challenge," stated Santiago Cartamil-Bueno, leader of the GrapheneSail group and director of SCALE Nanotech, a research study start-up business running in Estonia and Germany.

SCALE Nanotech is now looking for tactical partners to scale up the technology for an ultimate test in space. The product development of the sail innovation is presently sped up through ESA's Business Incubator Centre in Hessen and Baden-W├╝rttemberg, Germany.

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