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Mars sample return using solar sail propulsion

Johnson, Les and McInnes, Colin and Macdonald, Malcolm and Percy, T. (2012) Mars sample return using solar sail propulsion. In: Concepts and Approaches for Mars Exploration, 2012-06-12 - 2012-06-14, Texas.

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(Challenge Area 2: Safe and Accurate Landing Capabilities, Mars Ascent, and Innovative Exploration Architectures) Many Mars Sample Return (MSR) architecture studies have been conducted over the years. A key element of them is the Earth Return Stage (ERS) whose objective is to obtain the sample from the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) and return it safely to the surface of the Earth. ERS designs predominantly use chemical propulsion [1], incurring a significant launch mass penalty due to the low specific impulse of such systems coupled with the launch mass sensitivity to returned mass. It is proposed to use solar sail propulsion for the ERS, providing a high (effective) specific impulse propulsion system in the final stage of the multi-stage system. By doing so to the launch mass of the orbiter mission can be significantly reduced and hence potentially decreasing mission cost. Further, solar sailing offers a unique set of non-Keplerian low thrust trajectories that may enable modifications to the current approach to designing the Earth Entry Vehicle by potentially reducing the Earth arrival velocity. This modification will further decrease the mass of the orbiter system. Solar sail propulsion uses sunlight to propel vehicles through space by reflecting solar photons from a large, mirror-like surface made of a lightweight, reflective material. The continuous photonic pressure provides propellantless thrust to conduct orbital maneuvering and plane changes more efficiently than conventional chemical propulsion. Because the Sun supplies the necessary propulsive energy, solar sails require no on-board propellant, thus reducing system mass. This technology is currently at TRL 7/8 as demonstrated by the 2010 flight of the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, JAXA, IKAROS mission. [2].