The Biggest Solar Sail Will Be Launched By NASA In 2014 (+VIDEO)
Scientists report that solar sailing could send satellites into novel orbits or even to another star. NASA has recently unveiled its plans to launch a 13,000 square foot solar sail (the third to hit space) in 2014. Sunjammer’s sail, which is currently under construction, is a third of an acre, about 124 feet to a side, and seven times the size of the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and Planetary Society’s solar sail IKAROS, the biggest sail successfully launched to date. Sunjammer will race through the solar system and carry the ashes of Star Trek creator and his wife to the gravitationally balanced orbit between the Earth and Sun (L1); after that the solar sail’s reflective surface will harvest momentum from sunlight. The sail’s pulling power is proportional to its collecting surface area and drops off by the inverse square of its distance from the sun. NASA and L‘Garde fabricated a five micron thick 70 pound sail from DuPont’s thin film, Kapton, in order to maximize the thrust-to-weight ratio. Nathan Barnes, Chief Operating Office at L‘Garde, reports that solar sails could also be used to clear defunct satellites from orbit by slowing them down to burn up in the atmosphere. Or they could propel missions to multiple near-Earth asteroids instead of just one. NASA’s previous solar sail demonstration, NanoSail-D, was a failure, it spent a month and a half stuck inside its mothership; the glitch eventually solved itself and the sail sprang free. Let’s hope Sunjammer opens without a hitch.