Experiment with graphene as a material for solar sails a success

News - 18 December 2017 - Communication TNW

The experiment in which GrapheneX,  a team of PhD-students from TU Delft, tested graphene as a material for future solar sails has been carried out successfully. During the five runs of the experiment in ESA’s drop tower in Bremen, the team observed direct motion of their graphene samples under the influence of the laser.

Testing graphene’s space-propulsion potential, the team of PhD students from TU Delft participated in ESA’s Drop Your Thesis! campaign, which offers students the chance to perform an experiment in microgravity at the ZARM Drop Tower in Bremen, Germany. To create extreme microgravity conditions, down to one millionth of the Earth’s gravitational force, a capsule containing the experiment was catapulted up and down the 146 metre tower, leading to 9.3 seconds of weightlessness.

The experiment was the result of a collaboration between the GrapheneX team at TU Delft, the Graphene Flagship research initiative and the European Space Agency (ESA). The TU Delft Space Institute also supported the project. “Graphene as we know has a lot of opportunities. One of them, recognised early on, is space applications, and this is the first time that graphene has been tested in space-like applications, worldwide,” said Prof. Andrea Ferrari (University of Cambridge, UK), Science and Technology Officer of the Graphene Flagship.

Radiation pressure

The GrapheneX team designed and built an experiment to test graphene for use in solar sails, using free-floating graphene membranes provided by Flagship partner Graphenea. The idea was to test how the graphene membranes would behave under radiation pressure from lasers. In total, the experiment ran five times over 13-17 November 2017. Despite technical problems at the start of the week, the team successfully observed direct motion of the graphene under the influence of the laser, and are now closely analysing the results.

“The most important lesson is that something will always happen, and you need to be ready to adapt or to change,” said Santiago Cartamil Bueno, GrapheneX team leader. “I think at the end of the day, it’s about the experience, so you just need to create new challenges and learn from them, and be ready to grab more experience and go to the next level.”

“There’s always so many things you cannot test before you actually drop, so you never really know what’s going to happen. So that makes it a bit scary and exciting,” said Vera Janssen, GrapheneX team member. The GrapheneX team have been offered the chance to repeat the experiment and obtain further results on the influence of radiation pressure on graphene.