NASA will launch the largest solar sail in history as soon as next year

Illustration for article titled NASA will launch the largest solar sail in history as soon as next year

Solar sails are all about "propellantless" propulsion — using photons from the Sun (as opposed to an onboard fuel supply) to push a spacecraft through space. Building on the lessons learned from smaller solar sail missions, like NASA's NanoSail-D and JAXA's IKAROS, NASA is gearing up to to launch the biggest solar sail in history as early as next year. It's called Sunjammer, and at 13,000 square feet it is positively massive.

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PopSci's Clay Dillow explains:

The Sunjammer mission—the name is borrowed from an Arthur C. Clarke short story about an interplanetary yacht race—will unfurl a solar sail that dwarfs those that have thus far been tested in space. Where NanoSail-D's diminutive sail measured just 100 square feet and Japan's IKAROS measures something like 2,000 square feet, Sunjammer's sail possesses a total surface area of nearly 13,000 square feet. Yet collapsed it weighs just 70 pounds and takes up about as much space as a dishwasher, making it easy to stow in the secondary payload bay of a rocket headed to low Earth orbit.

The sail will be made of Kapton, a super-thin film developed by DuPont that is used in all kinds of things, from space suits to flexible circuitry. The special layer of Kapton film developed by DuPont along with NASA is just 5 microns thick. Once unfurled, it is light enough that its own weight isn't a hindrance yet strong enough that it can tow a support module across space using pressure provided by the sun in the form of photons as propellant, much as a maritime sail uses the wind to pull a sailboat across a body of water.

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More at Popular Science and SPACE.com.

Image via L'Garde

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DISCUSSION

The first thing that came to mind upon seeing the article title was a well known quote of "This will all end very badly." It's a low tech solution to space travel with the potential of ending up killing or, at least, stranding anyone using it since there isn't any protection against micro-meteor damage or worse. Sails are fine in the terrestrial atmosphere of a planet, but in space, too slow and pointless. Unless they have several back-up sails or a lot of repair kits, without an energy shield protecting the ship and sail from harm, it won't get far from Earth without sustaining a LOT of holes with all the crap floating and flying around out there.