NASA To Unfurl the Largest Solar Sail Ever Flown In Space

Illustration for article titled NASA To Unfurl the Largest Solar Sail Ever Flown In Space

In a series of upcoming technology demonstration missions, NASA is hoping to prove that giant solar sails are a practical way to explore the cosmos, even though warp drive engines and rocket powered spacecraft make for better movie fodder.

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Starting in 2015, NASA will be launching a series of three experiment driven missions, including one that will confirm the feasibility of using solar sails as a viable means of cheap propulsion. The giant 125x125 foot sail is seven times as large as those previously flown in space, but will one day need to be considerably larger to shuttle astronauts around. But this scaled-down version will at least let NASA test how accurately a sail-driven craft can be navigated, including attitude control using vanes on the tips of its cross beams.

Since NASA's budget has been recently neutered, the agency is focusing their efforts on investing in disruptive technologies that have the potential for a high payoff in future missions. And since solar sails rely on energy collected from photons or radiation already bouncing around in space, it's potentially a completely free source of propulsion, making space travel a far cheaper endeavor down the line. [NASA via PhysOrg]

DISCUSSION

defiantcoffee
Make-Believe Invisible Jewish Zombie of UltraPowerfulness

This is actually something great, and I'm glad they're experimenting with it. Other than Project Orion in 1946 (which nuclear prohibition put a stop to), or a "Ramjet", this is the next best thing, at least as far as current technology goes.

As far as acceleration, the most likely method would be beam propelled flight. Essentially we would come up with a maser (or laser) solution and would ping that off the rear of the solar sail. It would eventually speed up to enormous speeds, hypothetically reaching a fraction of the speed of light. The only downside is the amount of power needed to beam a the laser at the sail continuously at enormous energy levels (think gigawatts, for nearly a decade or more). The amount of energy that takes is "astronomical" in and of itself.

However, there have been hypotheses made that we could attach the lasers to the back of the solar sail (think of a satellite dish with the little arm that extends in front of the dish, and points at the dish itself). So it would continuously fire a laser at it's own solar sail, removing an Earth-side laser solution from the equation, but the amount of energy needing to be consume for that is going to be much harder to pull off than doing it from Earth.

I still think that Project Orion, with our current level of technology, would be the best solution. But rather than nuclear weapons, we try something different, something that offers less contamination floating around...

like Kittens. ;-)