May 19, 2024

The giant shadow sail is thinner than a human hair

The idea of ​​equipping spaceships with solar sails is not new. In 2010, the Japanese space agency JAXA successfully demonstrated the use of a solar sail equipped with printed solar cells using its Icarus probe. The probe “sailed” to Venus.

Solar sails for future space missions

Not long ago, NASA tested a satellite equipped with a small solar sail called Nanosail-D. Two of the Planetary Society's Lightsail test missions also focused on potential uses of solar sails in future space missions.

However, NASA's current success dwarfs – at least in size – all previous NASA solar sail missions. The US space agency has successfully deployed one of four identical solar sails for the first time.

Thin as a hair, but its area is 1600 square metres

This quarter is about 400 square metres, which is roughly the size of a basketball court. The material used, an aluminized polymer, is 2.5 micrometers thinner than a human hair. At full size, the canopy should have an area of ​​1,652 square metres From NASA he is called.

Solar sails, like the one NASA has now completed, work in a similar way to the sails of ships on Earth. Instead of relying on falling wind, solar sails work by having their surface reflect light particles from the sun.

The sail converts some of this energy into thrust, thus propelling the spacecraft. Of course, this only works in the vacuum of space and with enough protons from the Sun. The size and efficiency of the sun sail are also important.

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NASA: The larger the sail, the greater the thrust

Or as NASA engineer Les Johnson put it: “The larger the sail, the more thrust it can achieve.” Johnson, who has been working on developing the solar sail for 25 years, believes that NASA's sail is now “ready for launch.”

According to its advocates, solar sail technology will not only make missions in our solar system possible in the future, but also in the future. Upon leaving the solar system, large lasers can then be directed at the sails and power them.

One fifth of the possible speed of light

In theory, spaceships or probes powered by solar sails could reach about one-fifth the speed of light – and at much lower costs. This technology could also significantly extend the duration of space missions.

Images from ESA's Jupiter Juice mission

However, it is not yet clear when the first missions with NASA's new sail could begin. Before that, the technology may have to prove itself in a few test missions.

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