French startup raises funds to develop solar sails

WASHINGTON — A French startup has raised a first round of funding to begin testing solar sails, which it believes can greatly reduce the cost of space missions.

Paris-based company Gama announced March 22 that it had raised 2 million euros ($2.2 million) in seed funding to begin work on solar sails, including a demonstration mission, which it will launch in October want. Funding came from French public investment bank BPI, 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 on a SpaceX rideshare in October. The six-unit Cubesat will use a bus provided by NanoAvionics to test the deployment of a 73.3 square meter solar sail.

Andrew Nutter, a co-founder of Gama, said in an interview that Alpha’s main purpose is to test the sail’s deployment mechanism. “We’re using a spin sail solution,” he said, slowing the satellite’s spin and using centrifugal force to deploy the sail. “This will allow us much larger areas and reduced costs later on.”

The technique eliminates the need for booms to deploy and stabilize the sail. LightSail 2, a solar sail demonstration by The Planetary Society launched in 2019, used outriggers to extend its sail. “We tried to learn as much as we could from what they were doing and see where we can improve things,” he said.

Alpha will not generate measurable thrust from its low orbit due to atmospheric drag. “We’re going to be launched at 550 kilometers, which will be too low to really demonstrate thrust in any meaningful way,” he said. A second mission, scheduled for launch in early 2024, will fly to a higher orbit of at least 800 kilometers to generate thrust and test the sail’s controls.

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

Early targets for missions powered by Gama’s sails include starships bound for Venus or asteroids. The company’s mission roadmap includes a mission called Gamma that would fly to Venus as early as 2024. “Venus is kind of a polar star for the company and we’re very excited,” he said, “but I think we have to adapt to the possibilities as we discuss them with our scientific partners.”

The company is also exploring commercial applications for its shade sails. Such sails, he said, could allow spacecraft to sit over the poles or operate in “staggered” geostationary orbits slightly above or below the geostationary arc.

Nutter and his two co-founders, Louis de Gouyon Matignon and Thibaud Elziere, used their contacts from previous companies in other sectors to set up this first round of funding. “Our goal was simply to find a group of people who we consider friends who have built businesses in the past and who are very passionate about space and what we’re trying to achieve,” he said.

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

“There are a lot more commercial opportunities and huge amounts of money flowing into Europe,” he said. “Fundraising beyond a certain point is always difficult, but I am very confident that we will continue to raise funds.”

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