Solar Gravity Lens Concept Receives $2M NASA Grant for Technology Maturation

EL SEGUNDO, Calif., Apr. 20 2020 – The Solar Gravity Lens (SGL) concept to send a fleet of optical telescopes to image habitable planets far beyond our solar system received a $2 million grant by NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program

This two-year grant will support the further maturation of SGL technologies. The mission is led by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) with The Aerospace Corporation (Aerospace) as the mission architect.

“NASA’s selection of the SGL mission for the NIAC III award is a boost for the nation’s efforts to explore deep space,” said Steve Isakowitz, Aerospace president and CEO. “The SGL concept is enabled by an exciting set of breakthrough technologies in solar sails, artificial intelligence, nano-satellites, and formation flying that promise to revolutionize what we do with satellites closer to home.”

The SGL team previously received NIAC Phase I and II awards. The first two phases demonstrated basic concept feasibility and invented a novel mission architecture using multiple low-cost spacecraft. This architecture permitted phased launches by multiple partners to  observe exoplanets, which are planets that orbit around other stars. The team also defined a viable roadmap toward building the required SGL mission capability, beginning with a technology demonstration mission in the 2023–24 time frame, and leading to a full-scale SGL mission a decade later.

“This award brings us toward a proof-of-concept flight that would exit the solar system faster than any previous spacecraft,” said Tom Heinsheimer, Aerospace’s technical co-lead for SGL. “Then we would fly swarms of cooperating smallsats to observe the images of exoplanets substantially magnified by the predictions of Einstein as how light behaves around massive objects.  Using techniques developed by our principal investigator, Dr. Slava Turyshev of JPL, this data is converted into exoplanet images. Our smallsat architecture can simultaneously explore many exoplanetary systems, bringing us closer to the discovery of distant life in the universe.”

The SGL mission flies farther and faster than any previous mission. Exoplanetary targets can only be seen once the spacecraft arrive at the solar gravity focal line, over 500 times the distance of the Earth to the sun.

The SGL architecture therefore employs “sun-skimming” solar sails that accelerate each spacecraft to arrive at the observing region within 20 years of launch, and taking more than another 10 years to collect data.

Henry Helvajian, senior scientist in Aerospace’s Physical Sciences Laboratories and technical co-lead of SGL said, “When the collection of exoplanet images is complete, hundreds of SGL spacecraft will sail outward toward the cosmos, carrying microchips that portray life on Earth—building on the legacy of the Voyager Golden Records launched on Voyager Spacecraft in 1977."

About The Aerospace Corporation

The Aerospace Corporation is a national nonprofit corporation that operates a federally funded research and development center and has more than 4,600 employees. With major locations in Chantilly, Virginia; El Segundo, California; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Colorado Springs, Colorado, Aerospace addresses complex problems across the space enterprise and other areas of national and international significance through agility, innovation, and objective technical leadership. For more information, visit Follow us on X: @AerospaceCorp.


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