TULLAHOMA, Tenn. — NASA’s plans to send a manned mission to Mars may include a sailcraft developed at the University of Tennessee Space Institute.
Dr. Gary Flandro, holder of UTSI’s Chair of Excellence in Space Propulsion, and two graduate students are working on a vehicle whose giant Mylar sail would be powered by solar radiation.
The craft would transport supplies and equipment to the red planet before a manned mission arrived.
“Before astronauts could go to Mars, we would have to stockpile oxygen and a lot of equipment there to carry out the mission,” Flandro said “NASA asked us to think of unconventional ways to get cargo there, and to get it there cheaply. Conventional transportation using chemically propelled rockets would cost about the equivalent of 1,000 space shuttle missions.”
UTSI master’s candidate Brian Portock said the solar radiation that would power the sailcraft can be demonstrated easily.
“If you flash a camera near the shiny side of a skillet, you’ll hear a ‘ping.’ The sound is created by the momentum of the light hitting the skillet.”
To put the momentum of sunlight to work, the researchers envision a sail of thin aluminized Mylar the size of 10 city blocks. It would unfold after reaching Earth orbit to capture solar radiation for propulsion on the trip.
Flandro compared the structure to a sailing ship.
“You could sail all over the solar system with it, pushed by the radiation of the sun.”
UTSI doctoral candidate Dan Thomas said the structure that holds the sail stable would also hold the payload, probably in the center of the sail.
The manned flight would likely be aboard a more conventional spacecraft, Thomas said. The sailcraft would take 10 months to complete the 40 million-mile trip, compared to a rocket-powered journey of about five months.
Portock is doing trajectory and orbital analysis for a potential sail flight to Mars between the years 2009 and 2024.
“We have to come up with the optimal launch window to attempt a mission,” Portock said. “The orbit of Mars in relation to the Earth and sun, the weight of the payload, and the direction the sail will be pointed are all major factors.”
Flandro said the complex mathematics associated with the sailcraft’s deployment and the trip to Mars would be the key to success.
“There aren’t many places in the world that do those calculations, but we do,” Flandro said. “I don’t know of any other place in the United States where solar sail optimization work is being done.”
Contact: Cindy Calhoun (931-393-7520)