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NASA to Launch First Solar Sail
Posted In: NASA Articles  1/21/11
By: Chris Capps

Solar_Sail_1.jpg
NASA has utilized several different methods of propulsion when it comes to space travel, but most of them have relied on the use of chemical fuels the craft brings up with it from Earth into orbit.  But now with the first Solar Sail set to head up in the form of the Nanorsail D.  The solar sail, according to many experts, will herald in a new era of space travel if the project is successful.

The Solar Sail works by allowing photons from the sun and other astral bodies to propel it forward.  These protons push on the shield and push it through the vacuum of space with only a small amount of force.  The end result is speculated to be similar to a conventional sail when pushed by wind.  While it's unlikely a solar sail will be used for larger vessels intent on completing missions in a short period of time, it is ideal for smaller satellites because it can use the sun's rays with little or no onboard fuel required.  The sail's extension and retraction can be performed with an electrical system onboard and the power for this can come from miniature solar collectors arranged around the rim of the sail itself.  And rather than depending on combustible fuels to move it forward all at once, it would instead move forward slowly with only the small amount of momentum from the sun's powerful rays to project it on its journey.  The satellite itself is no larger than a conventional toaster oven, but in the vacuum of space it would have virtually no weight at all.

The system was originally depicted in such science fiction novels as the original book entitled "The Planet of the Apes" which eventually became the classic film of the same title starring Charlton Heston.  And from the rudimentary schematics released by NASA, the mechanism by which the vessel takes flight is similar if not the same.

Since satellites first launched into space, fuel has always been a problem.  For every ounce of fuel you actually use in space you must use up several more just to get that excess fuel to reach terminal velocity.  And in addition to that, the problems only compound when you take into consideration the dangers of discarded fuel canisters being left in a debris field in orbit around the planet and of course the cost of the device on top of it all.  With satellites seeing increased use the world over, there is no way to tell whether or not the system will work well enough to become standard issue on satellites in the future, but scientists are hopeful for new forms of propulsion and energy that are green such as these.  And the small but vociferous crowd cheering the system on suggests this new means of sailing through the stars could have many potential applications beyond just a PR stunt by NASA to create the first spacefaring vessel that does not require fuel once it is released into space.  Unfortunately the system does have its limitations.  While it can move away from the sun using photons of light, it must use conventional fuels or gravity wells to move toward the sun.


 

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