Friday, July 5, 2013

Solar sailing to the stars?

I learned today that I will be the second speaker at the Icarus Interstellar Congress in Dallas next month.  My talk will follow Greg Benford’s and will be about solar sails, one of the few real technologies that might be able to take us to the stars.

Solar sails use light, as their name implies, to ‘sail’ through space.  They don’t need any fuel and they can operate wherever there is enough sunlight, or laser light, to make them go.  They’re low thrust, meaning they don’t have a rapid acceleration, but it is constant – potentially enabling them to go faster than any rocket ever made.  And, most importantly, they’re now real.  In 2011, the Japan’s IKAROS mission showed the world that a large sail (over 40 feet on each side) can deploy in deep space and navigate using only the pressure of sunlight.  NASA plans to fly its own sail, the Sunjammer, next year.  Sunjammer, named after a solar sail in a short story by Arthur C. Clarke, will be over 100 feet on a side and scalable to much larger sizes.

This is a far cry from the Texas-sized sails we’ll need to reach Alpha Centauri, but it’s a start.

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