A new spacecraft could soon be flying through Earth’s orbit while being gently propelled by photons from the sun.
French aerospace company Gamma has launched its Gamma Alpha solar sail mission to test photovoltaic propulsion technology, which keeps spacecraft in orbit without the need for fuel. Gamma Alpha cubes were loaded aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and It launched on Tuesday morning From Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Station in Florida.
As the company’s first solar sailing mission, Gamma Alpha is an initial test of its technology. The cubes are roughly the size of a shoebox, while his large sun sail is about the size of a tennis court. The plan is for the sail to orbit the Earth at an altitude of 340 miles (550 kilometers), depending For a statement made by Gama. “Phase one will be to power up the satellite, establish communications and check all vital signs are good,” Jordan Collieux, Gamma System Principal Engineer said in the statement. “The second stage will be the deployment of the sail.”
Solar sails collect photons from the sun, causing small bursts of momentum that propel the spacecraft. When photons hit the sails, the spacecraft is propelled away from the sun. If a spacecraft is able to bypass clouds from Earth’s atmosphere, it could potentially reach very high altitudes.
“In space, the radiation pressure allows the Sun to accelerate continuously. The result? Missions that cost 10 to 20 times less and are no longer constrained by a fuel budget,” Andrew Nutter, co-founder of Gamma, said in the release. “A solar sail is idyllic, inherently sustainable, and reduces significantly reduce the cost of access to deep space or unstable orbits.”
The satellite will enter a slow spin once it deploys its solar sail. The main purpose of the Gamma Alpha mission is to demonstrate that a large sail can be deployed and controlled by small cubes, as well as to collect flight data to improve simulations of solar sail technology, according to Gamma.
Gama Alpha reached orbit less than two months after LightSail 2, a pioneering solar sail mission, burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere to finish its three-and-a-half-year stint. LightSail 2 launched in 2019 to test controlled solar sails in Earth orbit, inspiring a new generation of flying spacecraft to follow.
Several other solar sail missions are currently in the works, including NASA’s Advanced Composite Solar Sail System to test the glider boom material in Earth orbit (scheduled for launch sometime this year) and NASA Solar Cruiser (It is scheduled to be released in 2025). NASA’s NEA Scout solar sail mission launched aboard Artemis 1 in November 2022, but the team behind the mission was Unable to communicate with him since then.
Gama Alpha will also be followed by a later mission called Gama Beta. For the follow-up mission, the main objective will be to demonstrate continuous navigation from a height twice that of its predecessor. If the solar sailing missions are successful, Gama hopes to become an industry leader with this unique low-cost technology.
“We are building the space transportation infrastructure of tomorrow,” said Louis de Guyon-Matignon, co-founder of Gamma, in the statement. “While today companies focus on low Earth orbit, we decided to look further and prepare for space operations of the future.”
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