NASA has a very impressive demonstration planned for 2014, especially for those who were wondering about the value of propulsion without propellant. In 2014, the space agency has plans to wheel out the largest solar sail that the world has ever seen, showing off the possibilities of using what's already out in space as an alternative propellant to chemical-based fuel.
The sail in question, dubbed the “Sunjammer” after an Arthur C. Clarke novel, measures about 124 feet (32 meters for those who favor metric units) on each side and is about a third of an acre in total square footage (that's about 13,000 square feet or 1,208 square meters). It was built in cooperation with Tustin, California firm L'Garde Inc., which has itself previously built such unusual space faring gadgetry as inflatable structures to mount radio frequency antennas and solar arrays.
Following the launch of the solar sail, which is designed to be deployed in space and use photons emerging from the sun to move forward, the vessel to which the sail is attached will attempt to reach a distance of three million kilometers (1,864,114 miles) from Earth. The vessel will also have several test objectives to meet once it's under way according to reports, like deploying the sail successfully, using a set of sail-tipped vanes to control the craft's flight, navigating to points accurately, and then maintaining position at what's known to be a gravitationally stable location which goes by the unusual name of Earth-Sun Lagrange Point 1.
Sunjammer, interestingly, isn't the first time that space agencies have experimented with solar sails, with NASA's earlier NanoSail-D coming out back in November 2010. Just prior to that, Japan sent up the Ikaros probe in June of 2010, making it the first-ever craft to be propelled by sunlight alone. Once such craft are up and in place, they could provide advance warnings about adverse conditions in space weather. Additionally, it may open up some possibilities for space tourism, offering trips to a particular location that provides a rather impressive view of the sun. Further possibilities in the not so distant future include the removal of space debris in orbit around Earth as well as decommissioned satellites, and of course, deep space propulsion.
For science fiction buffs, meanwhile, the flight of the largest solar sail ever will have some further if not bittersweet significance in that the payload is said to include the ashes of “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry and his wife Majel Barrett Roddenberry.
Still, the sheer possibility of the flight—and what it represents for the future—may mean the start of something truly impressive. It could mean a way to start getting colonies together on Mars, the various moons of Jupiter, or anything else like that. Of course, it's going to likely mean getting some more money behind NASA and taking an honest look at space travel, something that hasn't exactly proven popular with voters and their representatives in the past. Still, the opportunities involved bear further consideration, and that's not something to take lightly.
Edited by Jamie Epstein