Project Background

Genesis of an Idea

One of the fundamental challenges facing designers of deep space missions is the constraint on how much propellant a given spacecraft is able to carry. Traditional chemical propulsion requires large storage tanks and plumbing necessary for a spacecraft to carry the entire load of propellant for a mission. Even when refueling depots in low Earth orbit become available – still some years in the future – engineering of spacecraft design and construction will still place an upper limit on the practical “range” of deep space missions originating from Earth. Additionally, carrying greater amounts of propellant requires a more massive spacecraft, which in turn requires more propellant to achieve a given mission objective. Therefore, chemical propulsion is largely undesirable for true deep space missions, especially those beyond the orbit of Mars. Even for trans-Mars trajectories, chemical propulsion is the least efficient means of getting there for most, if not all, mission designs.

FeatherSail concept. Courtesy NASA.

Engineers, scientists and theoreticians have, over the years, conceptualized many advancements over chemical propulsion. These include nuclear fission, theoretical fusion reactors, and other novel concepts, most of which are unproven or considered impractical for decades to come. Once concept which has already been demonstrated in spaceflight and has demonstrated feasibility is the solar sail. Solar sails are able to provide both propulsion and navigational capabilities with relatively low additional mass when compared to chemical propulsion which requires carrying the mass of both the propellant and the tankage to contain it.

Solar sail propulsion fundamentals. Courtesy NASA.

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 the sail against the wind.

Engineering Innovation

LunarSail is an effort to demonstrate the ability of a spacecraft under solar sail propulsion to utilize the sail in order to not only leave Earth orbit but also to navigate itself into a cislunar trajectory and insert itself into Lunar orbit. LunarSail will become the first spacecraft to steer itself to the Moon and enter orbit under its own power for the entire journey, unlike other spacecraft that were placed into trans-lunar insertion by means of chemical propulsion and then coasted to the Moon with only minor course corrections such that the gravitational pull of the moon “captured” them in orbit.

Science Opportunities

Along the way, LunarSail will provide a tremendous opportunity for studies of the region of space between the Earth and Moon. This region has been studied far less than the environments in low Earth orbit and around the Moon itself. However, it is an important area for study because any human expedition beyond Earth orbit will require astronaut crews to travel through this region. Lunar expeditions, in particular the proposed asteroid capture and rendezvous mission that NASA is planning for the 2017 timeframe, will require crews to spend an extended period of time in the Earth-Moon vicinity.

Since solar sails accelerate slowly, it takes a long time to build up a significant velocity increase. This results in the first portion of a trip to take significantly longer than if the spacecraft used chemical propulsion to “blast” itself on an escape trajectory. LunarSail will take advantage of this “slow ride” to offer scientists an excellent opportunity to study this region of space due to the length of travel time to lunar orbit.

Performance Requirements for Potential Solar Sail Missions. Photo courtesy of NASA ST9-SSM


Promoting STEM Education and Public Involvement in Space Exploration

ARES Institute intends to fulfill its mission of promoting space exploration and STEM education by involving the public and academia in the development and operation of the LunarSail mission.

We will achieve this by utilizing novel concepts to involve schools and the public, some never before applied to a space mission. First, in addition to potential government funding and support, ARES Institute will employ crowdfunding to raise the finances to purchase and build necessary hardware and, in turn, giving donors a real ownership stake in a mission to the Moon. Second, in terms of spacecraft hardware and software, we will be using open source systems as much as possible and crowdsourcing spacecraft development. Over the past five decades, dozens of “amateur” satellites have been constructed and flown by organizations around the world. Most notable is the Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation (a.k.a. AMSAT), who built and flew the first such satellite, also the first microsatellite, in 1961 – OSCAR 1. OSCAR is an acronym for Orbiting Satellite Carrying Amateur Radio. Today, amateur radio in space has become standard and was present on many space shuttle missions and is currently utilized onboard the International Space Station as part of the Amateur Radio on ISS (ARISS) project. ARISS is used, primarily, to give students in schools around the world the chance to speak live with astronauts orbiting on the space station.

We will use the example set by AMSAT as a guide in developing the spacecraft and mission for LunarSail. At every step, we will reach out to the community of amateur satellite participants and experts to participate in the design and construction of LunarSail.

Students at all levels of education will be invited to participate in this exciting mission as either contributors of hardware and software, labor or participating in mission operations. This is perhaps the most important spinoff benefit of the LunarSail mission. We can think of nothing more appropriate to stimulate interest in science, technology, engineering and math education than an opportunity to work hands-on in an actual space mission.

The effect on the general public will be important as well. LunarSail is a “citizen” space mission. It is not a NASA or government project nor is it an undertaking by a large corporation or wealthy individual. For the first time, average citizens will be able to participate in a deep space mission and we believe that is the most effective way to promote the importance of space exploration.

We envision novel concepts for public participation. We are inviting artists, photographers, musicians, etc. to submit their works to be stored on the spacecraft in digital form and transmitted to Earth from the Moon on a certain schedule.  Along with regular means of transmitting telemetry and commands from the ground, the spacecraft software will be designed to communicate via social networking, allowing near real-time updates and messages to be communicated back and forth on the various social networks that will be active at the time of the mission. This kind of public involvement would leverage means of communication that non-technical people are already comfortable with and make the mission more “personal” to a wider audience. These ideas are, of course, still conceptual and secondary to the primary mission of LunarSail but we believe it is important to leverage a mission like this to the fullest extent possible to promote space exploration and STEM education and, in turn, advance the state of the art in space technology and processes.



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