Oct. 23 - NASA has plans to launch a lightweight, highly efficient solar sail in 2015 to explore as far as three million kilometres into deep space. The sail, propelled by the Sun's rays, will also be tested as an early warning system for potentially damaging solar emissions headed for Earth. Rob Muir reports.
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Nathan Barnes is walking past what looks like a giant sheet of tin foil. In fact, it's just a small part of an ambitious project called Sunjammer, a gigantic solar sail to be launched into space in January, 2015.
If all goes according to plan, Sunjammer will unfurl like a 13,000 square foot piece of origami before beginning its journey of up to three million kilometres into space, propelled by nothing more than photons - light particles produced by the Sun.
Barnes's company, L'Garde Incorporated, has been contracted by NASA to build it.
(SOUNDBITE) (English) NATHAN BARNES, L'GARDE, INC., SAYING:
"The solar energy, the photons from the sun, is actually propelling the sail. Photons don't actually have any mass, but they have some momentum. Every time they strike a surface, and are reflected off of that surface, they create a small amount of impulse on that surface and will allow us to propel that sail off into space."
And if the solar sail concept is proven to be succesful, it could herald a new generation of durable, inexpensive space vehicles requiring no onboard propellant. The vehicles will have multiple applications, according to Stephen Eisele of L'Garde affiliate, Space Services Incorporated.
SOUNDBITE) (English) STEPHEN EISELE, SPACE SERVICES, INC., SAYING:
"What this mission will do is a few things, it will demonstrate the capability of solar sails to maneuver and navigate in the solar system and secondly, this mission will head towards the sun and actually provide an early warning system against potentially devastating solar flares."
The electromagentic particles that flares frequently eject can knock out electrical systems on Earth and disrupt satellites in space, but an alert from Sunjammer could give engineers on Earth enough time to prepare.
But scientists also see applications for collecting orbiting space debris and for inexpensive deep space exploration.
Sunjammer will not be the first solar sail mission - Japan launched a solar sail in 2010 - but it will be the most ambitious, potentially revolutionising unmanned missions of the future.