Cornell students and founding members of Sailing to the Stars, from left: Raghav Inder, Ethan Francolla, Ryan Lee, Joshua Umansky-Castro, Verena Padres, and Adam Yonas. (Image: Joshua Umansky-Castro)


A light sail developed by Cornell’s Space Systems Design Studio (SSDS) could one day propel small spacecraft through interstellar realms.


Much like a sailboat harnesses wind to travel across an ocean, light sails use the momentum of sunlight to travel through space. The “Sailing to the Stars” project is Cornell’s unique version of a light sail that includes a poster-size sheet of microprismatic retroreflective film equipped with “ChipSat” spacecraft — miniature satellites that weigh only 2.5 grams and can transmit data to Earth. The size of the sail, combined with its shape-memory alloy frame, allows it to fold inside a small deployer that can eject the sail, with the goal of sending it on a journey to nearby planets and, possibly one day, another star system. The sail’s deployment dynamics will be tested in microgravity, thanks to a grant from the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space’s International Space Station National Laboratory. The SSDS team is engineering new versions of its light sails and deployers for the experiment.


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Light sails are an emerging technology that could one day enable exploration of the solar system and beyond. Missions like SSDS’s Alpha CubeSat are striving to create smaller light sails that could be accelerated faster, ultimately to reach the closest star system within a reasonable period of time.


The Cornell team plans to use the light sail for its Alpha CubeSat mission expected to launch in 2025, which will be the first to demonstrate a ChipSat-sail architecture in orbit.

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