Image 1 - NASA Chief Technologist Praises Solar Sail Mission
March 19, 2012

NASA Chief Technologist Praises Solar Sail Mission

R Darrah for

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NASA chief technologist Mason Peck and Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) met with executives and engineers at L´Garde Inc. on Thursday, March 15 to see the company´s progress on providing an in-space demonstration of a large, mission-capable solar sail.

L´Garde was one of only a handful of companies to have been awarded a NASA Technology Demonstration Mission (TDM) contract last year.  The program calls for the Tustin, CA-based company to demonstrate the efficacy of solar sails by developing and flying a space solar sail with mission-capable accuracy, control and stability in 2014.

The one-year mission is part of NASA´s new space technology program, and will help advance the field of solar photon propulsion.

“At NASA we´re seeing a renaissance in space technology. Thanks to Congress and the administration we now have a new space technology program at NASA.  It´s the first time in a number of years where we´ve been making strategic investments in technology to fill up a pipeline that´s going to enable our future missions,” said Dr. Peck.

“Solar sails in particular represent a transformational capability, a way of exploring space that we can´t do right now,” said Peck, who was on a multi-stop tour of small businesses that contribute to the nation´s space program.”

Solar sails are a possible alternative to conventional fuels for interplanetary flight, and are potentially applicable to a wide range of future space missions, including an advanced space weather warning system that can provide more timely and accurate notice of solar flare activity.   The technology could also be applied to economical orbital debris removal and propellant-less deep space exploration missions.

“It might seem like science fiction, this is right at the tipping point, it´s been ready for years we just haven´t had the opportunity to invest in it.  But that´s what the technology demonstration mission programs are all about, taking these tipping point technologies and pushing them over the edge to the point where they can enable future missions,” said Dr. Peck.

“After this TDM, which by the way is the first one of the missions in NASA´s new space technology program, we will have the confidence to be able to put these things onto NASA missions.”

“This is very exciting, we´re seeing a new generation of how space can be done.”

L´Garde chief operating officer Nathan Barnes gave an overview of the solar sail demonstration, and said the company is targeting a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch in the fall of 2014.

The solar sail will be roughly the size of a dishwasher with a mass of 112 kg (247 lbs.) when it gets ejected into space.  Once ejected, it will expand to an area of 1,200 square meters.   Then, after doing what Barnes described as some ℠fancy sailing´, it will reach its destination point 3 million kilometers (1.86 million miles) from Earth.

This distance is twice as far away from Earth as the NOAA satellite that currently monitors space weather, meaning L´Garde´s solar sail can provide double the warning time we have today.

NOAA is collaborating with NASA and L´Garde on the demonstration.

Dr. Peck said that one of NASA´s TDM goals is to invest in technologies that will help enable future missions -- both government and commercial.

“As we go through the TDM the goal is to map that into as many missions as possible,” Peck said.

“This is not simply for a specific science application, or a specific NOAA application, ideally it´s for all of them, and maybe more we don´t yet know about.  But we can only get there if we actually demonstrate this stuff,” he said.

Dr. Peck and Rep. Rohrabacher each spoke about the potential of NASA´s investments to help stimulate growth in the U.S. economy and to foster American competitiveness.

“As you know, when we spend money on the space program, we´re not spending it in space, we spend it right here on Earth.  We spend it at companies like L´Garde, who are making a huge contribution to how we´re going to be doing space exploration in the future,” Dr. Peck said.

“This is super exciting and very important to NASA´s future, but it´s also about the innovation economy.  When we invest in technology we are investing in businesses -- large and small -- that can actually move the ball further down the field toward being economically competitive as a nation and growing the capabilities that will keep us competitive.”

Representative Rohrabacher stressed the importance of boosting productivity as a way to help pull the U.S. out of its growing debt burden.

“What we´re going to have to do is to make sure that we produce more wealth in the future, it´s the only way we´re going to get out of it,” he said.

“I happen to believe that space enterprise is a huge new venue for wealth production.  We´ve already used it to bring down the cost of telephone calls, and other communications.  I happen to believe we´re going to find more uses that will be expanding the values that we produce per person, which can pull our economy out of this.  It´s going to be high technology and resource development that does this.”

Dr. Peck, a Cornell University professor who has worked with many leading aerospace and defense firms, was named NASA's chief technologist in January.  He and his staff are tasked with coordinating, tracking and integrating technology investments across the agency and working to infuse innovative technologies into future missions.


Image 2: Left to Right: Dr. Mason Peck, NASA Chief Technologist, Nathan Barnes, L´Garde Program Manager, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher. Credit: R Darrah