LunarSail Project: Using a Solar Sail to Launch a Lunar Satellite

 

In 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the Moon. Forty-four years later, an enterprising non-profit is building the first privately-owned spacecraft for launch into lunar orbit and using crowdfunding and social media on the internet to enable the public to participate. Named LunarSail, the goal of the project is to give students and the public the opportunity to participate in developing a spacecraft that will not only go into space, but also travel to the Moon while conducting science experiments.

 

LunarSail will use a CubeSat to demonstrate the ability of a spacecraft under solar sail propulsion to navigate itself into a lunar trajectory and insert itself into lunar orbit. It will show the practical application of solar sail technology for propulsion, trajectory/attitude control and rendezvous with another body in space. This will be a first of its kind mission to use a solar sail to send a spacecraft to the Moon and then utilize the sail’s unique characteristics to navigate into lunar orbit.

 

LunarSail will be the first spacecraft to orbit another body in the solar system using only the propulsion provided by a solar sail. Fundamentally, solar sails utilize the solar wind to provide the “push” to propel a spacecraft through space. Theoretically, they may be effective anywhere inside the solar system where the solar wind is present. In practice, a solar sail uses an ultrathin membrane that is deployed in space to form a sail not unlike that on a sailboat. The sail is controlled and maneuvered so that it is able to use the force and direction of the solar wind to literally sail through space, guiding itself much as a sailboat changes trajectory by altering the position of its sail against the wind.

 

To date, the most successful solar sails that have been launch were NASA’s NanoSail-D which orbited Earth in 2010-11 and the Japanese IKAROS that was sent from Earth toward the inner solar system and even flew by Venus. NASA plans to launch a giant solar sail to an orbit past the Moon next year. However, LunarSail will be both the first solar sail to orbit a planet or moon and the first “nanosatellite” to do so. It will also be the first crowdfunded CubeSat to be sent beyond Earth orbit.

 

The invention of the CubeSat ushered in a revolution in the utilization and exploration of space by both governmental and civilian users. With a total volume as small as a 1,000 cubic centimeters, cubesats have  enabled relatively economical space access for industrial, academic and private organizations that previously couldn’t afford the high costs associated with developing and launching larger satellites. They have also enabled innovative low-cost missions to be conducted by NASA and space agencies around the world.

To date, most cubesat spacecraft have been placed in low-Earth orbit. Many of these conducted highly-focused science experiments or technology demonstrations. Perhaps the most common application of the cubesat platform is in the area of amateur satellites and amateur radio. The Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation (AMSAT) is a membership-based non-profit organization that got its start when HAM radio enthusiasts decided they wanted to place an amateur radio in space. The first Orbiting Satellite Carrying Amateur Radio (OSCAR) satellite was launched as a piggyback payload on the December 12, 1962 launch of Discoverer 36 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/OSCAR). Since then, dozens of amateur small satellites have been successfully built and operated by AMSAT organizations around the world. Today. Most AMSAT spacecraft are based on the cubesat standard due to its low implementation cost and ease with which launch systems are able to accommodate cubesats as secondary payloads using a variety of standard payload adapters.

Despite widespread acceptance for LEO applications, cubesats have yet to see adoption for missions requiring Earth escape trajectories. This is due to the limited size of cubesats which constrains the power, propulsion and communications abilities of the craft. However, even the most basic cubesats possess power budgets and communications abilities that surpass older large interplanetary spacecraft, some of which are still active and communicating with Earth. This implies that, if the challenges of power communication can be successfully addressed, the cubesat could potentially be a viable platform for deep space missions.

A primary objective of the LunarSail mission is to serve as a testbed for cubesat operations beyond low Earth orbit and applications requiring cislunar or interplanetary rendezvous. It is a proposed cubesat mission intended to demonstrate practical application of solar sail technology for propulsion, trajectory/attitude control and rendezvous with another body in space. With LunarSail, we will take advantage of the cubesat platform to conduct a first of its kind mission to use a solar sail to send a spacecraft to the Moon and then utilize the sail’s unique characteristics to navigate into lunar orbit.

Model of the Japanese interplanetary unmanned spacecraft IKAROS at the 61st International Astronautical Congress in Prague, Czech RepublicModel of the Japanese interplanetary unmanned spacecraft IKAROS at the 61st International Astronautical Congress in Prague, Czech Republic

The IKAROS (Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun) spacecraft was launched on 21 May 2010, aboard an H-IIA rocket, together with the Akatsuki (Venus Climate Orbiter) probe and four other small spacecraft. IKAROS is the first spacecraft to successfully demonstrate solar-sail technology in interplanetary space and the world’s first spacecraft to use solar sailing as the main propulsion. On 8 December 2010, IKAROS passed by Venus at about 80,800 km (50,200 mi) distance, completing the planned mission successfully, and entered its extended operation phase.

The mission also includes investigations of aspects of interplanetary space, such as the gamma-ray burst, solar wind and cosmic dust. The probe’s ALADDIN instrument (ALDN-S and ALDN-E) measured the variation in dust density while its Gamma-Ray Burst Polarimeter (GAP) measured the polarization of gamma-ray bursts during its six month cruise.

LunarSail plans to build on the success of  NASA’s NanoSail-D and IKAROS. LunarSail will be the first cubesat to leave LEO using a solar sail for primary propulsion and the first to use a sail to achieve an orbit around another body in the Solar System.

Assembled in cube-shaped packages with dimensions just 10 centimeters on each side, CubeSats have enabled economical space access for industrial, academic and private organizations. These groups previously have had a difficult time affording the high costs associated with developing and launching larger satellites. CubeSats, however, can cost less than $50,000 from design to launch, putting them within reach of universities and mid-sized organizations. In fact, it has been possible for some groups to obtain rides to orbit at no cost, bringing the total cost down closer to $10,000.

Despite their small size, CubeSats are capable of doing meaningful science experiments and observations, thanks to the widespread availability of miniaturized electronic components. Our project has two primary science objectives. The spacecraft will take several months to reach the Moon and this will enable us to make detailed observations of the region of space between the Earth and Moon. The spacecraft will measure the environment, including radiation and solar wind dynamics as well as micrometeoroid impacts in this region of space. Once captured by the Moon’s gravity, LunarSail will follow a complex orbital pattern as it settles into a final stable lunar orbit. During this time, we will be able to create detailed 3D maps of the gravitational field and flow of the solar wind around the Moon. Mapping the gravity around the Moon will enable us to create an accurate picture of its internal structure.
Engineering students, amateur radio enthusiasts and others with similar interests will be involved in the assembly, testing and science observations of the mission. Individuals will also contribute hardware, labor, programming and their own ideas and will be participants and co-owners of the mission and its success. LunarSail is an open source project. Except for restricted or third-party proprietary material, hardware designs and source code will be available to the general public on the project website. LunarSail’s primary computer is planned to be based on the Raspberry Pi single-board computer running an open source real-time operating system. As with other aspects of the project, anyone with skills that may contribute to the success of the mission is being invited to participate.
Just as important as the technical accomplishments, LunarSail represents a milestone for “citizen space exploration”. While professionals and outside suppliers are necessary for the creation of an appropriate design, assembly, test, launch and in-space operation, LunarSail is also inviting the public to participate with us during all phases of the mission, especially students, artists, musicians and other creative communicators.
To support LunarSail visit their campaign on Kickstarter:
For more information about LunarSail, visit the project at:
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ABOUT ARES INSTITUTE, INC.
Founded in 2002, the Aerospace Research & Engineering Systems Institute, Inc. is a 501 (c)(3) tax-exempt non-profit organization dedicated to promoting space exploration and STEM education through hands-on educational projects and public outreach. The Institute manages innovative programs such as LunarSail in order to give young students and the public the opportunity to work on real-world space-related projects, ARES Institute also engages in extensive public outreach including the online publication Zero-G News (zerognews.com) and a forthcoming trade magazine, Aerospace Florida. Contributions to ARES Institute are tax-deductible to the full extent permissible by law. For more information, visit http://www.aresinstitute.org.