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Solar Sailing

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Everyone here on planet Earth knows that we can use the sun’s rays to harvest sustainable energy.  But, did you know that we can now harvest solar energy for sailing the cosmos?  Solar sailing is not something NASA has come up with recently.  The idea of using sails to harvest light in space for travel has been discussed for some time.  As far back to when rockets were in their infancy.

LightSail-1 Illustration
LightSail-1 Illustration

The Planetary Society, established by the late Carl Sagan, sought to experiment with the idea of solar sailing.  The cause has been picked up by Ann Druyan, a film producer and widow of Carl Sagan.  Within a year from now, a rocket will launch a box the size of a bread basket into a 500 mile high orbit.  The box, once in orbit, will unfurl four triangular sails, and then if all goes as planned, will slowly rise on a sunbeam and move across space.  The solar sail, dubbed LightSail-1 receives its driving force from light that carries not just energy but momentum.  The force is predicted to be gentle and constant, unlike rockets that fire in controlled intervals.  The Planetary Society feels that sails on a craft that are a mile long on one side, could reach speeds of hundreds of thousands of miles per hour.  Fast enough to traverse the solar system in 5 years.  Riding a beam of light could allow a sail space craft to make the journey to another star system in 100 years.  NASA feels that such long journeys are not feasible for human life.  The exposure to long term radiation in space makes it too dangerous for people to venture on 100 year trips.  NASA had once thought of trying to use a solar sail to hitch a ride on Halleys Comet when it last appeared, but decided against it.  Solar sailing provides similar benefits for man in space as solar energy does on Earth.  A completely renewable energy source, and in space the sun always shines.

John Vlahakis

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