NASA plans giant solar sail for 2014; interstellar yacht race still to come

L’Garde

Solar sailing spacecraft aren’t just a pipe dream created by science fiction writers and space pirates from Crossbone Gundam. Now NASA andL'Garde, a Tustin, California-based company, are preparing to launch a spacecraft with the largest solar sail ever created that spans 13,000 square feet.

The solar sail, known as the Sunjammer, is set to take off sometime in 2014, and is expected to travel nearly 2 million miles (3 million kilometers) in its journey. NASA hopes that the mission will prove that the “propellant-less propulsion" technology can be used for long-distance space travel.

According to NASA, the Sunjammer will come equipped with a sail that measures 124 feet on a each side and would cover nearly a third of an acre—that's seven times larger than any solar sail ever deployed in space. Despite being so much larger than the NanoSail-D, NASA’s previous solar-sailing spacecraft, The Sunjammer only weighs 70 pounds and collapses into something the size of a dishwasher.

The sail itself will be made out of Kapton, a super-thin film developed by DuPont that’s used in everything from space suits to flexible circuitry. A solar sail works just like a sail on a boat here on Earth, except instead of using wind to propel the ship, the Sunjammer will ride on the solar pressure provided by the momentum of traveling photons.

If the Sunjammer name sound familiar, you may recall a short story by the same name authored by Arthur C. Clarke in which there was interplanetary yacht race using solar sails. While this Sunjammer won’t be out to win any races, NASA hopes that it will be able to reach Earth-Sun Lagrange Point 1, a stable gravitational point between the Sun and our planet.

If the Sunjammer successfully completes its mission, we might see a future with starships and satellites with solar sails—and yes, eventually space pirates.

[NASA and L’Garde via Space.com]

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