Sail On, Silver Bird

Big excitement in Al’s coffee shop. “What’s the fuss, Al?”

Lightsail 2, Sy. The Planetary Society’s Sun-powered spacecraft. Ten years of work and some luck and it’s up there, way above Hubble and the ISS, boosting itself higher every day and using no fuel to do it. Is that cool or what?”

“Sun-powered? Like with a huge set of solar panels and an electric engine?”

“No, that’s the thing. It’s got a couple of little panels to power its electronics and all, but propulsion is all direct from the Sun and that doesn’t stop. Steady as she goes, Skipper, Earth to Mars in weeks, not months. Woo-hoo!”

Image by Josh Spradling / The Planetary Society

Never the rah-rah type, Big Vinnie throws shade from his usual table by the door. “It didn’t get there by itself, Al. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket did the hard work, getting Lightsail 2 and about 20 other thingies up to orbit. Takes a lot of thrust to get out of Earth’s gravity well. Chemical rockets can do that, puny little ion drives and lightsails can’t.”

“Yeah, Vinnie, but those ‘puny’ guys could lead us to a totally different travel strategy.” A voice from the crowd, astrophysicist-in-training Newt Barnes. “Your big brawny rocket has to burn a lot of delta-v just to boost its own fuel. That’s a problem.”

Al looks puzzled. “Delta-v?”

“It’s how you figure rocket propellant, Al. With a car you think about miles per gallon because if you take your foot off the gas you eventually stop. In space you just keep going with whatever momentum you’ve got. What’s important is how much you can change momentum — speed up, slow down, change direction — and that depends on the propellant you’re using and the engine you’re putting it through. All you’ve got is what’s in the tanks.”

Al still looks puzzled. I fill in the connection. “Delta means difference, Al, and v is velocity which covers both speed and direction so delta-v means — “

“Got it, Sy. So Vinnie likes big hardware but bigger makes for harder to get off the ground and Newt’s suggesting there’s a limit somewhere.”

“Yup, it’s gotten to the point that the SpaceX people chase an extra few percent performance by chilling their propellants so they can cram more into the size tanks they use. I don’t know what the limit is but we may be getting close.”

Newt’s back in. “Which is where strategy comes in, Vinnie. Up to now we’re mostly using a ballistic strategy to get to off-Earth destinations, treating the vehicle like a projectile that gets all its momentum at the beginning of the trip. But there’s really three phases to the trip, right? You climb out of a gravity well, you travel to your target, and maybe you make a controlled landing you hope. With the ballistic strategy you burn your fuel in phase one while you’re getting yourself into a transfer orbit. Then you coast on momentum through phase two.”

“You got a better strategy?”

“In some ways, yeah. How about applying continuous acceleration throughout phase two instead of just coasting? The Dawn spacecraft, for example, was rocket-launched out of Earth’s gravity well but used a xenon-ion engine in continuous-burn mode to get to Mars and then on to Vesta and Ceres. Worked just fine.”

“But they’re such low-thrust –“

“Hey, Vinnie, taking a long time to build up speed’s no problem when you’re on a long trip anyway. Dawn‘s motor averaged 1.8 kilometer per second of delta-v — that works out to … about 4,000 miles per hour of increased speed for every hour you keep the motor running. Adds up.”

“OK, I’ll give you the ion motor’s more efficient than a chemical system, but still, you need that xenon reaction mass to get your delta-v. You still gotta boost it up out of the well. All you’re doing with that strategy is extend the limit.”

Al dives back in. “That’s the beauty of Lightsail, guys. No delta-v at all. Just put it up there and light-pressure from the Sun provides the energy. Look, I got this slick video that shows how it works.”

Video courtesy of The Planetary Society.

~~ Rich Olcott

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