The first Solar Sail spacecraft met an untimely end, crashing into the ocean instead of making it into orbit. But now, in 2010, a new, improved version of that craft–an entire spaceship that’s propelled only by the sun’s rays–is set to launch. And scientists will be see if this unique spaceship will become the prototype for long term interstellar travel.
Some scientists believe that such solar sail technology holds the key to long term exploratory spaceflight, according to the Associated Press.The solar sail spacecraft are designed to be propelled by accumulating photons, not solar winds, and though slow-moving at first, would eventually be able to reach tremendous speeds. And that’s right–it’s zero emissions space travel.
The new craft, called the LightSail-1, will actually hopefully be the first of a series of three similar solar-sailed spacecrafts created by the Planetary Society–the space advocacy organization founded by none other than Carl Sagan.
Planetary Society describes the first of the three missions, which it hopes will launch in December of next year, as follows: “Our first solar sail will lay the foundation for the whole LightSail program by demonstrating controlled flight with only the pressure of solar photons bouncing off the sail.”
The AP reports that plans for next year’s launch are already being hammered out:
“The spacecraft will launch with its four triangular Mylar sails packaged in a volume equal to about three quarts and unfurl to an area of more than 340 square feet, resembling a giant diamond-shaped kite. It will orbit at an altitude of nearly 500 miles and operate for just a few days to determine if it can be controlled and to measure the orbital acceleration.”
The craft, which apart from its massive sails is only about the size of a toaster, will then be returned to earth.And then? The second solar sail project, LightSail 2, will be more ambitious, according to the Planetary Society. “It will last months and begin the application of solar sails for reaching beyond Earth. Carrying a larger payload of scientific instruments, it will aim both to provide new data — including Earth measurements — and further refine our solar sailing skills.”
This mission is planned to last much longer than the first, and will be followed by a third, which will send a Solar Sail deeper into space.