A Rochester Institute of Technology researcher is taking solar sailing to the next level with advanced photonic materials.

Photo credit: NASA

Metamaterials—a new class of manmade structures with unconventional properties—could represent the next technological leap forward for solar sails, according to Grover Swartzlander, professor in RIT’s Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science.

He proposes replacing reflective metallic sails with diffractive metafilm sails. The new materials could be used to steer reflected or transmitted photons for near-Earth, interplanetary and interstellar space travel.

“Diffractive films may also be designed to replace heavy and failure-prone mechanical systems with lighter electro-optic controls having no moving parts,” he said.

Swartzlander is leading an exploratory study supported by Phase I funding from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program. The nine-month, $125,000 award encourages development of visionary technology with potential to revolutionize future space exploration.

NASA Near-Earth Asteroid Scout or NEA Scout will be the first CubeSat science mission having attached sails. It is one of 13 satellites that will conduct science and technology investigations as part of NASA’s Exploration Mission-1. EM-1 is slated to launch this year on the new Space Launch System rocket. When deployed, NEA Scout’s aluminum coated polyimide sail will reflect sunlight to propel the reconnaissance robotic spacecraft on its two-year cruise.

Swartzlander said diffractive metafilm sails could correct known limitations of reflective metallic sails—overheating, inefficient use of photons and excessive tilt of the spacecraft—because the new materials can lower absorption, reuse photons and improve orientation.

A leader in his field, Swartzlander has conducted pioneering research on the optical vortex coronagraph, optical vortices, solitons, coherence theory, optical tweezers and optical lift.