NASA will be setting a new record in November 2014. That’s when they plan to deploy the largest solar sail ever, a craft dubbed “Sunjammer.” It takes its name from an Arthur C. Clarke short story about a solar-sail yacht race.
Nearly a quarter of the size of a football field The Sunjammer‘s sails will have a surface area of 13,000 square feet. The sail will be constructed by L’Garde Inc. in Tustin, California, and Sunjammer will hitch a ride skyward atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Nathan Barnes, L’Garde’s chief operating officer and executive vice president, said, “With this sail, we’re targeting our end goal somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,864,114 miles (3 million kilometers) distance from the Earth.”
Solar sails are a form of “propellantless propulsion.” Just as traditional sails rely on the wind to push a boat, solar sails use photons from our sun to push a craft along. Since they don’t require any fuel, solar sails could be uniquely suited to missions such as observing the sun or visiting near-Earth asteroids. Lee Johnson is deputy manager of the Advanced Concepts Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. He said of Sunjammer:
We found that a Sunjammer-derived sail could visit up to six NEAs within six years of being launched. This would be impossible with chemical rockets and might not be achievable by electric propulsion. And it’s all because the sail uses no propellant … deriving its thrust from sunlight, making it a very ‘green’ space propulsion system
Johnson also hopes to see a solar sail deployed very close to the sun, where it could accelerate enough that it could actually make it into interstellar space. Larger solar sails could “one day enable us to reach the stars. This is one of the few ways nature has provided for us to travel between the stars.”