On August 22nd 2011, NASA announced three technology demonstration missions. One of the missions was “Beyond the Plum Brook Chamber; An In-Space Demonstration of a Mission-Capable Solar Sail” . NASA's goal is to launch a 38m by 38m solar sail spacecraft and demonstrate attitude control, passive stability and trim, and a navigation sequence with mission-capable accuracy using a solar sail. The mission represents NASA's reinvestment in propellant-less space propulsion.
Generally, solar sails are large membranes that are reflective on one side and emissive on the other. Photons impact these large membranes creating a solar pressure jump across the membrane and causing a thrust in the normal direction to the sail. Although a small force, the solar force is applied continuously, which when combined with the lack of energy dissipation in space, allows a spacecraft to accelerate indefinitely. Solar sail spacecraft are able to carry out certain missions that require sustained thrust, a feat that is unbelievable by conventional spacecraft for long-duration missions. Proposed applications include orbital debris capture and removal, de-orbit of spent satellites, station keeping in unstable locations in space, and deep space propulsion .
Developing solar sail capabilities requires effective means of designing, analyzing and testing solar sail technologies. Because of the cost prohibitive nature of testing the systems and subsystems in space, accurate analysis and response predictions are vital to the future development of the technology. My research provides support to the ground validation of structural models and create the first dedicated solarelastic analysis tools. Understanding the solarelastic instability potential in the design phase of a proposed solar sail could mean the difference between success and failure during early solar sail missions.