NASA may have just got the Curiosity Rover back online, but researchers are already making plans for future projects, one of which is the 2014 launch window for the world's biggest solar sail, known as the Sunjammer project.
A solar sail works by harnessing a combination of light and high speed ejected gasses from a star (in our case the Sun) to push a lightweight craft along. While the pressure exerted isn't much, over time it builds, theoretically generating massive speeds over a long period of time. The technology was theorised in Sunjammer's namesake – a fictional story by Arthur C Clarke, but was also tested in the real world with the 2010 launch of a solar sail called Ikaros, funded by the Japanese space agency.
However Sunjammer is far bigger than Ikaros, which measured 200 square metres. In comparison, the NASA vehicle will measure 1,200 square metres and will weigh just 32KG. As Wired reports, this is ten times lighter than any previous solar sail launch and should allow for a cheaper deployment into space as well as for faster acceleration once it gets there.
The plan with this mission is to see what affect such a large sail will have on potential speed, but also to test how well the craft can handle and control altitude. Due to the longevity for a technology like this, there's a lot of potential for ongoing missions with such a piece of kit. As it has almost no moving parts and requires no fuel, there's no reason sails like this couldn't be used for decades to come.
KitGuru Says: This seems like a pretty good future space tech. How about a network of solar sail pulled space-trains. That said, when something goes wrong we won't need Bruce Willis, we'll need the world's best sailor. I'm calling it now, this is the next Michael Bay movie. “Sun Sail. He'll sail to the ends of the earth and beyond, just to save her.”
I want a EP credit for that tag line.