Over the past several years we’ve looked at two missions that are being designed to go beyond the heliosphere, much farther than the two Voyagers that are our only operational spacecraft in what we can call the Local Interstellar Medium. Actually, we can be more precise. That part of the Local Interstellar Medium where the Voyagers operate is referred to as the Very Local Interstellar Medium, the region where the LISM is directly affected by the presence of the heliosphere. The Interstellar Probe design from Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Solar Gravity Lens (SGL) mission would pass through both regions as they conduct their science operations.

Both probes have ultimate targets beyond the VLISM, with Interstellar Probe capable of looking back at the heliosphere as a whole and reaching distances are far as 1000 AU still operational and returning data to Earth. The SGL mission begins its primary science mission at the Sun’s gravitational lens distance on the order of 550 AU, using the powerful effects of gravity’s curvature of spacetime to build what the most recent paper on the mission calls “a ‘telescope’ of truly gigantic proportions, with a diameter of that of the sun.” The vast amplification of light would allow a planet on the other side of the Sun to be imaged at stunning levels of detail.

Image: This is Figure 1 from the just released paper on the SGL mission. Caption: A visualization of the key primary optical axes (POA) and the projected image plane of the exoplanet. The imaging spacecraft is the tiny element in front of the exoplanet image plane. Credit: Helvajian et al.

Let’s poke around a bit in “Mission Architecture to Reach and Operate at the Focal Region of the Solar Gravitational Lens,” just out in the Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets, which sets out the basics of how such a mission could be flown. Remember that this work has proceeded through the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) office, with Phase I, II and now III studies resulting in the refinement of a design that can satisfy the requirements of the heliophysics decadal survey. JHU/APL’s Interstellar Probe takes aim at the same decadal, with both missions designed to return data relevant to our own star and, in SGL’s case, a more distant one.

Given that it has taken Voyager 1 well over 40 years to reach 159 AU, getting a payload to the gravitational lens region for operations there and beyond as the craft departs the Sun is a challenge. But the rewards would be great if it can be made to happen. The JPL work and a great deal of theoretical study prior to it have revealed that an optical telescope of no more than meter-class equipped with an internal coronagraph for blocking the Sun’s light would see light from the target exoplanet appearing in the form of an ‘Einstein ring’ surrounding the solar disk. High-resolution imagery of an exoplanet can be extracted from this data. We can also trade spatial for spectral resolution. From the paper:

The direct high-resolution images of an exoplanet obtained with the SGL could lead to insight on the on-going biological processes on the target exoplanet and find signs of habitability. By combining spatially resolved imaging with spectrally resolved spectroscopy, scientific questions such as the presence of atmospheric gases and its circulation could be addressed. With sufficient SNR and visible to mid-infrared (IR) sensing [26], the inspection of weak biosignatures in the form of secondary metabolic molecules like dimethyl-sulfide, isoprene, and solid-state transitions could also be probed in the atmosphere. Finally, the addition of polarimetry to the spatially and spectrally resolved signals could provide further insight such as atmospheric aerosols, dust, and, on the ground, properties of the regolith (i.e., minerals) and bacteria and fauna (i.e., homochirality)…

I won’t labor the issue, as we’ve discussed gravity lens imaging on many an occasion in these pages, but I did want to make the point about spectroscopy as a way of underlining the huge reward obtainable from a mission that can collect data at these distances. The paper is rich in detailing the progress of our thinking on this, but I turn to the mission architecture for today, offering as it does a remarkable new way to conceive of deep space missions both in terms of configuration and propulsion. For we’re dealing here with spacecraft that are modular, reconfigurable and highly adaptable using clusters of spacecraft that practice self-assembly during cruise.

The SGL mission is based on a constellation of identical craft, the primary components being what the authors call ‘proto-mission capable’ (pMC) spacecraft, with final ‘mission capable’ (MC) craft being built as the mission proceeds. Smaller pMC nanosats, in other words, dock during cruise to build an MC; five or perhaps six of the latter are assumed in the mission description in this paper to allow full capability during the observational period within the focal region of the gravity lens. The pMC craft use solar sails for a close pass by the Sun, all of them launched into a parking orbit before deployment toward the Sun. The sailcraft fly in formation following perihelion, dispose of their thermal shielding, then their sails, and begin assembly into MC spacecraft.

How to separate a final, fully functional MC craft into the constituent units from which it will be assembled in flight is no small issue, and bear in mind the need for extreme adaptability, especially as the craft reach the gravitational lensing region. Near-autonomous operations are demanded. The SGL study used simulations based on current engineering methodology (CEM) tools, modifying them as needed. The need for in-flight assembly stood out from the alternative. From the paper;

Two types of distributed functionality were explored: a fractionated spacecraft system that operates as an “organism” of free-flying units that distribute function (i.e., virtual vehicle) or a configuration that requires reassembly of the apportioned masses. Given that the science phase is the strong driver for power and propellant mass, the trade study also explored both a 7.5-year (to ?800 AU) and 12.5-year (to ?900 AU) science phase using a 20 AU/year exit velocity as the baseline. The distributed functionality approach that produced the lowest functional mass unit is a cluster of free-flying nanosatellites (i.e., pMC) each propelled by a solar sail but then assembled to form an MC spacecraft.

Out of all this what emerges is a pMC design with the capability of a 6U CubeSat nanosatellite, self-contained and three-axis stabilized, each of these units to carry a critical part of the larger MC spacecraft. Power and data are shared as the pMCs dock. The current design for the pMC is a round disk approximately 1 meter in diameter and 10 cm thick, with the assembled MC spacecraft visualized as stacked pMC units. One pMC would carry the primary and secondary mirrors, a second the science package, optical communications package and star tracker sensors, and so on. In-space assembly need not be rushed. The paper mentions a time period of several months as needed to complete the operation.

The 28-year cruise phase ends in the region of 550 AU, with two of the five or six MC spacecraft now maneuvering to track the primary optical axis of the exoplanet host star, which is the line connecting the center of the star to the center of the Sun. The host star is thus a key navigational resource which will be used to determine the precise position of the exoplanet under study. Interestingly, motion in the image plane has to be accounted for – this is due to the effect of the wobble of the Sun caused by gas giants in our Solar System. Such wobbles are hugely helpful for those using radial velocity methods to study planets around other stars. Here they become a complicating factor in extracting the data the mission will need to construct its exoplanet imagery.

The disposition of the spacecraft at 550 AU is likewise interesting. All of the MC spacecraft are, as the acronym makes clear, capable of conducting the mission. It now becomes necessary to subtract the Sun’s coronal light from the incoming data, which is accomplished by having one of the spacecraft follow an inertial path down the center of the spiral trajectory the other craft will follow (the other craft all move in a noninertial frame to make it possible to acquire the SGL photons). Having one craft on an inertial path means it sees no exoplanet photons, and thus its coronal image can be subtracted from the data gathered by the other four craft. The inertial path spacecraft also acts as a local reference frame that can be used for navigation.

Image: A meter-class telescope with a coronagraph to block solar light, placed in the strong interference region of the solar gravitational lens (SGL), is capable of imaging an exoplanet at a distance of up to 30 parsecs with a few 10 km-scale resolution on its surface. The picture shows results of a simulation of the effects of the SGL on an Earth-like exoplanet image. Left: original RGB color image with (1024×1024) pixels; center: image blurred by the SGL, sampled at an SNR of ~103 per color channel, or overall SNR of 3×103; right: the result of image deconvolution. Credit: Turyshev et al., “Direct Multipixel Imaging and Spectroscopy of an Exoplanet with a Solar Gravity Lens Mission,” Final Report NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Phase II.

The spacecraft are moving at more than 20 AU per year and have up to five years between 550 and 650 AU to lock onto the primary optical axis of the exoplanet host star. As the craft reach 650 AU, the optical axis of the host star becomes what the authors call a ‘navigational steppingstone’ toward locating the image of the exoplanet, which once acquired begins a science phase lasting in the area of ten years.

The details of image acquisition are themselves fascinating and as you would imagine, complex – I send you to the paper for more. My focus today is the novelty of the architecture here. If we can assemble a mission capable spacecraft (and indeed a small fleet of these) out of the smaller pMC units, we reduce the size of sail needed for the perihelion acceleration phase and make it possible to achieve payload sizes for missions far beyond the heliosphere that would not otherwise be possible. We build this out of a known base; in-space assembly and autonomous docking have been demonstrated, and technologies for assembly operations continue to be refined. NASA’s On-Orbit Autonomous Assembly from Nanosatellites and CubeSat Proximity Operations Demonstration mission are examples of this ongoing research.

What a long and winding path it is to extend the human presence via robotic probe ever further from our planet. This paper examines technologies needed to advance this movement, and again I point to the ongoing Interstellar Probe study at JHU/APL as another rich source for current and projected thinking about the needed technologies. In the case of the SGL mission, what is being proposed could have a major impact on the search for life elsewhere in the universe. Imagine a green and blue exoplanet seen with weather patterns, oceans, continents and rich spectral data on its atmosphere.

But I come back to that mission architecture and the idea of self-assembly. As the authors write:

We realize that this architecture fundamentally changes how space exploration could be conducted. One can imagine small- to medium-scale spacecraft on fast-traveling scouting missions on quick cadence cycles that are then followed by flagship-class space vehicles. The proposed mission architecture leverages a global technology base driven by miniaturization and integration, and other technologies that are coming into fruition, including composite materials based on hierarchical structures, edge-computing platforms, small-scale power generation, and storage. These advances have had an effect on the small spacecraft industry with the development of a worldwide CubeSat and nanosat ecosystem that have continually demonstrated increasing functionality in missions…

We’ll continue to track robotic self-assembly and autonomy issues with great interest. I’m convinced the concept opens up mission possibilities we’ve yet to imagine.

The paper is Helvajian, “Mission Architecture to Reach and Operate at the Focal Region of the Solar Gravitational Lens,” Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets. Published online 1 February 2023 (full text). For earlier Centauri Dreams articles on the SGL mission, see JPL Work on a Gravitational Lensing Mission, Good News for a Gravitational Focus Mission and
Solar Gravitational Lens: Sailcraft and In-Flight Assembly.