Photons to Torpedo Solar Sails Into Space

    June 21, 2005

The Planetary Society aims for the final frontier with the launch of their Cosmos 1. A Russian Volna rocket carrying the Cosmos blasted off today from the Barents Sea in the belly of a Russian submarine. In four days, the sails will unfurl and imagination will be taken aback as reality becomes more fantastic.

Until now, solar technology has been on the drawing board and in science fiction like Star Trek or Star Wars but solar sails are very real and if this works, will change the landscape of space technology and exploration. All the big space agencies currently have projects in existence dealing with solar sails. Cosmos 1 project director Louis Friedman led a NASA project on solar sails back in the 70s.

Photons to Torpedo Solar Sails Into Space

The project came in at $4 million and many of the procedures traditionally followed by the big government space agencies weren’t required. This made the project much easier in many ways. Overhead was greatly reduced, engineering salaries weren’t as high and materials in general were cheaper.

Photons Aren’t Just For Torpedoes

The key to solar sailing lies with that big ball of gas that keeps us and the earth from freezing more solid than we already are. The sun produces small, elementary particles called photons and while there are multiple types of photons, they’re most commonly associate with visible light. The solar sails made of Mylar and backed with aluminum are designed to capture these photons in a kind of solar wind and this will propel the Cosmos 1 forward. In theory, there’s no upper limit to the speed of the ship.

Anticipated speeds have this thing going very, very fast within months of its launch. Scientists theorize 10,000 miles and hour after the first 100 days. They anticipate incremental speed increases that could take solar sailing vessels to 100,000 miles an hour after 3 years and after doing the math could put ships at Pluto in 5 years. And people thought the Internet made the world smaller?

All this excitement is incredible but problems could arise. The membranes they call solar sails are about 1/4th the thickness of a garbage bag and it’s stretched over a 50-foot triangular sail. It’s durable material considering but there’s a lot of junk floating around in space. This thing isn’t a done deal by a long shot.

But, if this project goes off with minimal hitches, many scientists will head back to the proverbial drawing board to work on new designs and other possibilities. It won’t change much of the work going on now like putting the Discovery back in the air but the chill will be felt as hair on the back of the neck of the scientific community stands up and takes notice. Then reality goes back to te back seat and imagination starts all over again.

John Stith is a staff writer for WebProNews covering technology and business.