A group called the Ares Institute announced on October 13, 2013 that it has completed its initial funding thanks to a Kickstarter campaign for a solar sail propelled vehicle that would fly into lunar orbit called LunarSail. The group exceeded its goal by 50 percent.
“With capital in hand, work has begun in earnest to purchase spacecraft systems, computer hardware and software and outfitting laboratory working space.
“LunarSail is an advanced technology development project to demonstrate the ability of a spacecraft under solar sail propulsion to navigate itself into a lunar trajectory and then into Lunar orbit. It’s design is based on the CubeSat standard. CubeSats are small, completely self-contained spacecraft assembled from individual units 10 centimeters on a side. Because of their small size and relatively low cost, CubeSats have become one of the preferred satellite platforms for universities, private companies and even NASA for conducting focused scientific and engineering studies in space.
“The purpose of the LunarSail project is to promote education in the science and math disciplines by enabling high-school and university students to participate in an exciting mission to explore the environment around the Moon. Ares Institute is currently seeking to partner with schools around the country to bring mission-related science activities to thousands of students, particularly those in minority and at-risk communities. During the mission, students and teachers will be able to take advantage of related educational projects in the classroom which will include using the spacecraft to permit students to conduct experiments and observations, educational apps and games for mobile devices and real-time web-based activities.
“Along with its educational purpose, LunarSail has significant engineering objectives, the foremost being to serve as a testbed for CubeSat operations beyond low Earth orbit in applications requiring lunar or interplanetary trajectories. The unique mission will demonstrate practical application of solar sail technology for propulsion, trajectory/attitude control and rendezvous with another body in space. Science instruments on board the spacecraft will study the environment of the Earth-Moon system and conduct science observations and take photos and video that will be broadcast back to Earth for anyone to receive and use.”
If the LunarSail project succeeds in placing a CubeSat into lunar orbit, it could revolutionize the way that robotic probes are sent beyond low Earth orbit. Instead of a single large probe propelled by rockets, a swarm of smaller probes, riding sunlight, could be sent to targets across the solar system. Solar sail propelled vehicles would move agonizingly slow at first, but would steadily pick up velocity because the minute pressure of sunlight would be constant. Thus space exploration may well feature a golden age of sail, as occurred on Earth’s oceans for many centuries.