Chinese engineers working on graphene solar sails to explore deep space

26 Feb 2019

Image: © anibal/

China’s place as the next leader in space exploration continues, with engineers now working on powerful solar sails to travel great distances.

Despite it soon approaching half a century since humans first walked on the moon, the way astronauts leave Earth’s atmosphere remains largely the same: rocket power. While a number of alternatives have been proposed over the decades, most remain as theories or are limited to lab experiments.

However, within space itself, a number of alternatives are available that do away with the need for a finite chemical fuel source, in favour of light-powered propulsion using so-called ‘solar sails’. Now, according to the Xinhua news agency, engineers at the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology have said they are working on using the ‘wonder material’ known as graphene to produce highly efficient solar sails that could one day be used to explore deep space.

Research leader of the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology team, Song Shengju, said that more than 80pc of a spacecraft’s weight is made up of chemical propellent. If this could be removed, new avenues of space exploration would be opened up. So, the team is developing graphene sails that could withstand temperatures of more than 800 degrees centigrade.

‘Would facilitate exploration to the unknown universe’

Previous research undertaken by Prof Chen Yongsheng of Nankai University showed graphene is excellent at being driven by various light sources – particularly sunlight – and can generate thrust 1,000 times higher than polyimide film in vacuum conditions.

Polyimide is currently the main focus of solar sail research among China’s biggest space rivals, including the European Space Agency, NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

“[This research is] just the beginning,” Song said. “We need to conduct further research on the mechanisms and properties of the graphene and light-powered spacecraft. If we make breakthroughs in this technology, it would facilitate exploration to the unknown universe.”

The news comes not long after a researcher from the China Academy of Space Technology Corporation, Pang Zhihao, said that he and his team are working towards an orbiting 1MW solar power station that would be deployed in space. In concept, the orbiting power plant would convert the solar energy into electricity that would be beamed back to Earth using advanced photonics or through microwave transmission.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic