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NASA’s French rival Gama gets €2M to deploy its solar sail spacecraft

Gama
Image credits: Gama

Gama, a French aerospace company has recently announced that to have raised €2M in funding as it plans to deploy a solar sail in space. 

The funding was provided by the French public investment bank (BPI), the CNES (Centre National d’Études Spatiales), and serial entrepreneurs and space investors such as Nicolas Pinto (Apple), Marie Outtier (Twitter), Possible Ventures, Kima Ventures, or Romain Afflelou (Cosmo Connected).

How will the funding be used?

The funds will enable the company to finance a demonstration mission, the deployment of a solar sail from a satellite launched by SpaceX Falcon 9 slated for launch in October 2022. 

“Private companies are proving that space innovation can happen fast, unlocking vast commercial opportunities. We are delighted to have the support of the BPI, the CNES, and some illustrious Business Angels to reach an important milestone. This mission will be followed by a second launch in 2024 at a higher altitude to deploy a larger sail and demonstrate control and the onboard navigation system. In 2025, we will become one of the very few to explore further, at significantly lower cost, with a mission to Venus”, says Andrew Nutter, Gama co-founder.

Understanding Solar Sail

Kepler first theorised the possibility in a 1608 letter to Galilei. The concept of propelling a spacecraft solely by sunlight was further developed in the 1970s.

Solar sails have been in the dreams of many for decades, only more recently being proven as a viable technology for deep space exploration. 

A solar sail is a large, very reflective surface used as propulsion to carry a payload. When photons hit the surface despite having no mass, they impart momentum to the entire vehicle. 

Since there is no resistance in the void of space, it allows a solar sail continuously accelerate and achieve unimaginable speeds. 

By tilting the mirror, it is possible to navigate in different directions and steer the vehicle through the solar system.

“In the void of space, with no air friction, a continuous force (even a small one) applied to a spacecraft induces a constant acceleration and continuously increases its speed,” says Jordan Culeux, technically leading the first mission.

Similar to maritime sailing, it is the position of the sail in relation to the rays of the Sun that will determine the trajectory of the craft. As with a conventional sail, it is, therefore, possible to move away from the Sun but also to get closer by sailing “upwind

Emerging technology 

Louis de Gouyon Matignon and Thibaud Elziere met in 2020 to turn the concept into reality. Andrew Nutter, a space enthusiast and investor in numerous technology companies, quickly joined as the third co-founder.

“In 1999, I wrote my school thesis on solar sails in partnership with French Space Agency (CNES) researchers. Since then, the passion has never left me and I had only one obsession, to go from theory to practice. In 2020, I contacted a research group in France, the U3P (Union pour la Promotion de la Propulsion Photonique), who put me in touch with Louis, a young entrepreneur with the same dream” says Thibaud Elziere, Gama co-founder.

Unlike conventional chemical or electric propulsion systems that need to carry fuel, photonic propulsion draws energy purely from the Sun. Spacecraft using this form of propulsion is thus less massive and can be accelerated continuously with a virtually infinite source of energy. 

Similar to Gama, NASA and JAXA (Japanese Space Agency) are also working on similar projects using a solar sail.

“This is an emerging technology and there have only been a handful of successful solar sail projects so far. It is attracting the interest of the major space agencies and we are aware that NASA and JAXA (the Japanese Space Agency) are working on similar projects”, says Louis de Gouyon Matignon, Gama co-founder.

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