NASA is preparing to test a massive solar sail called the Sunjammer in space.
The sail, developed by California company L’Garde, will be launched into space folded up into a square the size of a dishwasher before unfurling to 13,000 square feet.
“NASA has experimented with smaller solar sails in the past,” said spokesman David Steitz. “But the Sunjammer Mission is without question the most ambitious solar sail NASA, or anyone, has ever attempted to fly in space.”
Solar sails work a lot like wind sails on ships in the sea, Steitz said.
“A solar sail receives a ‘push’ from solar photons and uses that push to create momentum to propel the sail – and the spacecraft or instruments it’s attached to – in space,” he said. “Solar sails have the potential for use in a number of practical applications near Earth as well as for deep space travel. For example, a solar sail could be used to manage the station keeping of a spacecraft placed between the Earth and the Sun.”
A spacecraft like that could be used to monitor solar flares and send advanced warning to Earth about potential electrical interuptions.
NASA is conducting the Sunjammer Mission under its Technology Demonstration Mission program, which is designed to test advanced-stage new technologies that are “ready for the real thing,” Steitz said.
Flying new technologies in harsh space environments can prove them and demonstrate they’re mature enough to be incorporated into NASA missions and the new commercial aerospace industry.
L’Garde’s technology is exciting and advanced. While solar sails and the concept of solar sails are not new, the Sunjammer takes the technology to a new level that has enabled scientists to imagine some pretty amazing space explorations.
“Solar sails also could be used for long duration deep space missions where you wouldn’t want a spacecraft to be dependent on a limited traditional liquid or solid-state fuel source,” Steitz said. “Thanks to Newton’s laws of motion, once a solar sail is moving, even a small amount of solar photons could help propel a spacecraft to the very edge of our solar system, or even into a neighboring star’s photon emission field. A solar sail could surf the universe without ever giving off any emissions.”