It’s interesting to contemplate the kind of missions we could fly if we develop lightweight smallsats coupled with solar sails, deploying them in Sundiver maneuvers to boost their acceleration. Getting past Voyager 1’s 17.1 kilometers per second would itself be a headline accomplishment, demonstrating the feasibility of this kind of maneuver for boosting delta-v as the spacecraft closes to perhaps 0.2 AU of the Sun before adjusting sail attitude to get maximum acceleration from solar photons.

The economic case for smallsats and sails is apparent. Consider The Planetary Society’s LightSail-2, a solar sail in low Earth orbit, which demonstrated its ability to operate and change its orbit in space for multiple years before reentering Earth’s atmosphere in November of 2022. Launched in 2018, LightSail-2 cost $7 million. NASA’s Solar Cruiser, a much larger design still in development despite budging hiccups, weighs in at $65 million. Slava Turyshev and team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory independently verified a cost model, with the help of Aerospace Corporation, of $11 million for a one-year interplanetary flight based on their Technology Demonstrator design.

Those numbers go up with the complexity of the mission, but can be reduced if we take advantage of the fact that spacecraft like these can be repurposed. A string of smallsat sailcraft sent, for example, to Uranus to conduct flybys of the planet, its moons and rings, would benefit from economies of scale, with successive missions to other outer system targets costing less than the ones that preceded them. Here the contrast between dedicated flagship missions (think Cassini or the Decadal Suevey’s projected Uranus Orbiter) could not be greater. Instead of a separately developed spacecraft for each destination, the modular smallsat/sail model creates a base platform allowing fast, low-cost missions throughout the Solar System.

To the objection that we need orbiters at places like Uranus to get the best science, the answer can only be that we need both kinds of mission if we are not to bog down in high-stakes financial commitments that preclude targets for decades at a time. Of course we need orbiters. But in between, the list of targets for fast flybys is long, and let’s not forget the extraordinary range of data returned by New Horizons at Pluto/Charon and beyond. As the authors of the recent paper from the JPL team note, heliophysics can benefit from missions sent to various directions in the heliosphere:

The shape of the heliosphere and the extent of its tail are subject to debate and the new model of the heliosphere—roughly spherical with a radius of ?100 AU—needs confirmation. Of course, every mission out to >100 AU will test it, but a series of paired missions (nose and tail, and in perpendicular directions) would provide a substantial improvement in our understanding of ISM/solar wind interactions and dynamics. High-velocity, low-cost sailcraft could probe these questions related to the transition region from local to pristine ISM sooner and at lower cost than competing mission concepts. Since the exact trajectory is not that crucial, this would also provide excellent opportunities for ad hoc trans-Neptunian object flybys.

Image: This is Figure 5 from the paper. Caption: New paradigm – fast, low-cost, interplanetary sailcraft with trajectories unconstrained to the ecliptic plane. Note the capability development phases from TDM (at 5–6 AU/yr) to the mission to the focal region of the SGL (20–30 AU/yr). Credit: Turyshev et al.

What I see emerging, however, is a new model not just for flyby missions but for the kind of complicated mission we’ve gotten so much out of through spacecraft like Cassini. We are on the cusp of the era of robotic self-assembly, which means we can usefully combine these ideas. Ten fast smallsats capable of flying considerably faster than anything we’ve flown before can, in this vision, self-assemble into one or more larger craft enroute to a particular destination. The Solar Gravitational Lens mission as designed at JPL relies on self-assembly to achieve the needed payload mass and also draws on the ability of smallsats with sails to achieve the needed acceleration.

We can trace robotic self-assembly all the way back to John von Neumann’s self-replicating probes, but as far as I know, it was Robert Freitas who in 1980 first took the idea apart in terms of a serious engineering study. Freitas applied self-assembly to a highly modified probe based on the Project Daedalus craft. Freeman Dyson considered robotic methods using robot swarms to build large structures and also proposed his famous ‘Astrochicken,’ a 1 kg self-replicating automaton that was part biological and was conceived as a way of exploring the Solar System. Eric Drexler is well known for positing nanomachines that could build large structures in space.

So the idea has an interesting past, and now we can consider the Turyshev paper we’ve been looking at in these past few posts as the outline of an overall rethinking of the classic one-destination-per-mission concept, one that allows cheap flybys but also alternate ways of putting larger instrumented craft into the kind of orbits the 2022 Decadal has recommended for its putative Uranus mission. Modular smallsat design might incorporate self-assembly including propulsion modules for slowing the encounter speed of a mission to the outer planets. Here is what the paper says on the topic as it relates to a possible mission to search for life in the plumes of Enceladus:

Another mission type may rely on in-flight aggregation [8], which may be needed to allow for orbital capture. For that, after perihelion passage and while moving at 5 AU/yr (?25 km/s), the microsats would perform inflight aggregation to make a fully capable smallsat to satisfy conditions for in situ investigations. One such important capability may be enhanced on-board propulsion capable of providing the ?v needed to slow down the smallsat. In this case, before approaching Enceladus, the spacecraft reduces its velocity by 7.5 km/s using a combination of on-board propulsion and gravity assists. Moving in the same direction with Enceladus (which orbits Saturn at 12.6 km/s) it achieves the conditions for in situ biomaterial collection.

We might, then, consider the option of either multiple flybys of small probes or larger payloads in self-assembling smallsat craft of the ice giants and other targets in the outer reaches of the system. The paper names quite a few possibilities. Among them:

    The so-called ‘interstellar ribbon,’ evidently determined by interactions between the heliosphere and the local interstellar magnetic field.

    Indirect probing of sailcraft trajectory in search of information about the putative Planet 9 and its gravitational effects somewhere between 300 and 500 AU of the Sun (Breakthrough Starshot has also discussed this). And if Planet 9 is found, target missions to a world much too far away to study with chemical propulsion methods.

    The Kuiper Belt and beyond: KBOs and dwarf planets like Haumea, Makemake, Eris, and Quaoar within roughly 100 AU of the Sun, or even Sedna, whose orbit takes it well beyond 100 AU.

    Observations of Earth as exoplanet, observing its transits across the Sun and improving transit spectroscopy.

    Missions to interstellar objects like 1/I ‘Oumuamua, which are believed to occur in substantial numbers and likely to be a rich field for future discovery.

    Studies of the local interplanetary dust cloud responsible for the zodiacal light.

    Exoplanet imaging through self-assembling smallsats, the JPL Solar Gravitational Lens mission.

Image: This is Figure 9 from the paper. Caption: IBEX ENA Ribbon. A closer look suggests that the numbers of ENAs are enhanced at the interstellar boundary. A Sundiver spacecraft will go through this boundary as it travels to the ISM. Credit: SwRI.

As examined in JPL’s Phase III study for the SGL mission (the term ‘microsat’ below refers to that category of smallsats massing less than 20 kilograms):

The in-flight (as opposed to Earth-orbiting or cislunar) autonomous assembly [8] allows us to build large spacecraft from modules, separately delivered in the form of microsats (<20 kg), where each microsat is placed on a fast solar system transit trajectory via solar sail propulsion to velocities of ?10 AU/yr. Such a modular approach of combining various microsats into one larger spacecraft for a deep space mission is innovative and will be matured as part of the TDM flights. This unexplored concept overcomes the size and mass limits of typical solar sail missions. Autonomous docking and in-flight assembly are done after a large ?v maneuver, i.e., after passing through perihelion. The concept also offers the compelling ability to assemble different types of instruments and components in a modular fashion, to accomplish many different mission types.

To say that robotic assembly is an ‘unexplored concept’ underlines how much would have to be resolved to make such a daring mission work. The paper goes into more details, of which I’ll mention the high accuracy demanded in terms of trajectory. Remember, we’re talking about flinging each microsat into the outer system after perihelion on its own, with the need for successful rendezvous and assembly not in Earth orbit but in outbound cruise. Docking technologies for structural, power and data connections would go far beyond those deployed on any missions flown to date.

Even so, I’m persuaded this concept is feasible. It’s also completely brilliant.

Autonomous in-space docking has been demonstrated, while proximity operation technologies specific to such missions can be developed with time. I’ve referred before in these pages to NASA’s On-Orbit Autonomous Assembly from Nanosatellites (OAAN) project, and note that the agency has followed with a CubeSat Proximity Operations Demonstration (CPOD) mission. Needless to say, we’ll keep an eye on these and other efforts. I’m reminded of the intricacies of JWST deployment and have to say that from this layman’s view, we are building the roadmap to make self-assembly happen.

Image: An early artist’s impression of OAAN. Credit: NASA.

Alex Tolley has been looking at self-assembly issues in the comments to the previous post. I highly recommend reading what he has to say. I noted this about redundancy, an issue I hadn’t considered. Quoting Alex:

“Normally, a swarm of independent probe sails would offer redundancy in case of failure. A swarm of flyby sail probes can afford the odd failure. However, this is not the case with probes that must be combined into a functioning whole. Now we have a weakest link problem. Any failure could jeopardize the mission if a failed probe has a crucial component needed for the final combined probes. That failure could be with the payload, or with the sail system itself. A sail may fail with a malfunctioning blade, which prevents being able to rendezvous with the rest of the swarm, or more subtly, be unable to manage fine maneuvering for docking.”

Self-assembly is complex indeed, making early missions that can demonstrate docking and assembly a priority. Success could re-shape how we conceive deep space missions.

For a more detailed look at how the JPL team views self-assembly in the context of the SGL mission, see Helvajian et al., “A mission architecture to reach and operate at the focal region of the solar gravitational lens” (abstract). The Turyshev et al. paper is “Science opportunities with solar sailing smallsats,” available as a preprint. I’ve also written about self-assembly in Solar Gravitational Lens: Sailcraft and In-Flight Assembly.