Gama Launches Its ‘Gama Alpha Solar Sail Mission’

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Credits: SpaceX/ Unsplash
  • After two years of research and rapid development, the satellite containing the solar sail was successfully placed in orbit by a SpaceX Falcon 9.
  • The primary objective of Gama Alpha is to deploy and control the sail.
  • While Alpha is about the sail deployment, Beta will be launched at twice the altitude and focus on “navigation”.

Gama, a French aerospace company, announces the launch of its first solar sail to space, with the support of the CNES and private companies including CMA CGM, a global player in sea, land, air, and logistics solutions.

Solar sail

After two years of research and rapid development, the satellite containing the solar sail was successfully placed in orbit by a SpaceX Falcon 9, on the 3rd of January 2023. 

A solar sail uses only sunlight for propulsion, removing the need to carry fuel and opening new scientific and commercial possibilities in our solar system and beyond. 

The Gama Alpha mission aims to test the deployment and control of the sail, a decisive step for the democratization of this new means of space propulsion.

Revolutionary means of propulsion

Solar sails rely on photonic propulsion, using the pressure produced by photons when they bounce off a reflective surface. 

The force is weak, but when applied to a large surface and in the void of space, allows the spacecraft to continuously accelerate.

With continuous acceleration, a solar sail could theoretically become the fastest spacecraft made by humans. 

Similar to maritime sailing, it is the position of the sail in relation to the Sun’s rays that will determine the trajectory of the craft. 

And as with a conventional sail, it is therefore possible to move away from the Sun but also to get closer by sailing “upwind”.

Sustainable costs

“In space, the sun’s radiative pressure allows constant acceleration. The result? Missions that are 10 to 20 times less expensive and no longer limited by a fuel budget. 

A solar sail is poetic, inherently sustainable, and dramatically lowers the cost of access to deep space or unstable orbits” says Andrew Nutter, Gama co-founder.

Launch of Gama alpha mission

Gama’s first demonstrator mission, “Gama Alpha”, is a satellite placed in orbit at an altitude of 550 km by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on 3rd of January 2023. 

The 6U cubesat (the size of a large shoebox) weighs just 12 kilograms, including the packed 73.3m2 sail.

First phase

The first phase will be commissioning the satellite, establishing communications and checking all the vital signs are good. The second phase will be the sail deployment. 

The satellite will be put in slow rotation, initiating the release of four tungsten masses at the tip of each sail petal. 

The centrifugal force generated by the rotation is enough to ensure the deployment and the structural shape of the sail. Comments Jordan Culeux, Gama Lead System Engineer.

Sustained navigation 

The primary objective of Gama Alpha is to deploy and control the sail, demonstrating that a very large sail can be controlled from a cubesat and receiving flight data to improve simulations and control algorithms. Demonstrating sustained navigation will be the objective of Gama’s second mission, Gama Beta.

Final phase

The final phase for Alpha will be deorbiting the satellite, benefiting from the Earth’s remnant atmosphere at mission altitude. 

The large surface area and small mass will cause the satellite to rapidly deorbit, minimising the risk of debris and also demonstrating a sail can be used to deorbit satellites at end of life.

Unique technology 

The development of the satellite took two years, with many prototypes and iterations of the folding and deployment system of the sail, as well as development of simulations and software to control the spacecraft. 

Part of the platform (electrical systems, telecommunications, on-board cards, etc.) was supplied by the Lithuanian company NanoAvionics.

“The technology developed by Gama is unique in that the company works on the deployment and control of ever larger surfaces in space. 

Our ability to deploy a sail the size of a tennis court from a satellite barely larger than a shoebox opens up new perspectives” says Thibaud Elziere, Gama co-founder.

Gama Beta and beyond

The Gama Alpha mission will be followed Gama Beta, to demonstrate sail propulsion and navigation. 

While Alpha is about the sail deployment, Beta will be launched at twice the altitude and focus on “navigation”, going from A to B using only photonic propulsion and proving all key elements of the technology.

With this flight heritage, Gama will partner with space agencies and commercial partners to unlock access to deep space.

“In short, we are building the space transportation infrastructure of tomorrow. 

While companies today are focused on low earth orbit, we have decided to look further afield and prepare for the space operations of the future. 

Thanks to the solar sail, we offer an economically viable alternative to continue exploring the Solar System and carry out increasingly complex missions” concludes Louis de Goüyon Matignon, Gama co-founder.

Partnership and sponsorship

To make the Alpha mission a reality, Gama is fortunate to have the support of the French Space Agency, the CNES, as well as many other public and private enterprises, including the CMA CGM Group, a global player in sea, land, air, and logistics solutions.

CMA CGM already uses data from satellites to improve its operations throughout the globe, for navigation, real-time maritime conditions and communications. 

With a rapidly growing space economy and new impetus to develop space resources, reliable and affordable space logistics will be necessary to help develop commercial opportunities.

About Gama

Gama is a French space company founded by Louis de Gouyon Matignon, Thibaud Elziere and Andrew Nutter. 

Gama’s mission is to revolutionize access to deep space using low-cost, reliable and scalable solar sails. 

A solar sail allows a spacecraft to be powered solely by sunlight and accelerated to unprecedented speeds. 

Gama is offering its photonic propulsion technology for commercial and scientific missions to explore and exploit resources in our Solar system.

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Source: Sail World

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