French startup raises funding to develop solar sails

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WASHINGTON — A French startup has raised an initial round of funding to begin testing of solar sails it believes can sharply reduce the cost of deep space missions.

Paris-based Gama announced March 22 it raised 2 million euros ($2.2 million) in seed funding to start work on solar sails, including a demonstration mission it plans to launch in October. The funding came from the French public investment bank BPI, the French space agency CNES and several private investors.

The funding will allow the company to complete its first spacecraft, Gama Alpha, which is scheduled to launch in October on a SpaceX rideshare mission. The six-unit cubesat, using a bus provided by NanoAvionics, will test the deployment of a solar sail with an area of 73.3 square meters.

Andrew Nutter, a co-founder of Gama, said in an interview that the primary purpose of Alpha is to test the sail’s deployment mechanism. “We’re employing a spin-sail solution,” he said, slowing rotating the satellite and using centrifugal force to deploy the sail. “This allows us further down the line to have much larger surfaces and reduce costs.”

The technique does away with the need for booms to deploy and stabilize the sail. LightSail 2, a solar sail demonstration by The Planetary Society launched in 2019, used booms to deploy its sail. “We’ve tried to learn as much as possible from what they’ve done and see where we can improve things,” he said.

Alpha won’t generate any measurable thrust because of the atmospheric drag from its low orbit. “We’ll be launched to 550 kilometers, which will be too low to really be able to prove thrust in any meaningful way,” he said. A second mission, planned for launch by early 2024, will go to a higher orbit of at least 800 kilometers to generate thrust and test controls of the sail.

Gama believes its sails can help space agencies develop low-cost missions by taking advantage of the ability of sails to generate thrust continuously without propellant. “The vision is to dramatically reduce the cost of deep space exploration,” Nutter said. The focus is on science missions, he said, “because there are still significant budgets for scientific exploration, especially if you can reduce the cost by 10, 50, 100 times.”

Early targets for missions propelled by Gama’s sails include spacecraft going to Venus or to asteroids. The company’s roadmap of missions includes one called Gamma that would go to Venus as soon as 2024. “Venus is kind of the North Star for the company and it gets us very excited,” he said, “but I think we’ll have to adapt to the opportunities when we discuss them with our scientific partners.”

The company is also looking at commercial applications of its solar sails. Such sails, he said, could allow spacecraft to sit over the poles or operate in “displaced” geostationary orbits a little above or below the geostationary arc.

Nutter and his two co-founders, Louis de Gouyon Matignon and Thibaud Elziere, leveraged their contacts from past businesses in other sectors to line up this initial funding round. “The objective for us was just to find a group of people we consider friends who have built businesses in the past and who are very excited about space and what we’re trying to achieve,” he said.

He said that it is becoming easier for space startups in Europe to raise money as venture capital funding increases, creating new opportunities. “In terms of engineers, France and Europe have a huge talent pool,” he said. “If you compare costs to an engineer in California, it’s a fraction of the cost.”

“There’s much more commercial opportunity, and huge amounts of funds coming into Europe,” he said. “Fundraising beyond a certain level is always difficult, but I’m very confident that we’ll continue to fundraise.”