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Space sails cruise through demonstration tests

laser sail
NASA artist's concept of sail-powered spacecraft  

July 6, 2000
Web posted at: 1:09 p.m. EDT (1709 GMT)

(CNN) -- A developing technology that could power interstellar voyages has passed breakthrough tests in the laboratory, NASA said this week. Scientists used microwaves and laser beams to "fill" extremely thin and lightweight prototype space sails, the agency said.

The sails driven by microwaves actually achieved liftoff and flight, while those used in the laser experiment moved horizontally, according to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

"No one has ever done this before," JPL project manager Henry Harris said. "These results would not have been possible without newly developed ultralight, high-temperature sail materials and beamed-energy propulsion methods."

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Voyages to the stars will likely require lightweight spacecraft. Space sails fit the bill because they do not require conventional, and extremely heavy, rocket propulsion.

Satellites with microwave or laser beam generators could supply space sails with a steady supply of photon "fuel" from a remote location. The stream of photons would exchange momentum with the sails, giving them a boost.

"The engine would be in orbit, producing a beam of photons. The spacecraft would not have to carry that mass along," Harris said.

The microwave sail experiment took place at JPL, while the laser-driven test was conducted at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.

Researchers observed accelerations of several times the force of gravity during the microwave tests, said project scientist James Benford.

In both tests, the sails were composed of a carbon composite developed by Energy Science Laboratories in San Diego, California.

The lightweight material is extremely strong and can survive the punishing heat produced by high-energy beams.

"The temperature reached as high as 2,500 degrees Kelvin during the tests. High temperatures mean high acceleration," Harris said.

The carbon fiber could also serve as the "canvas" for solar space sails, which would use the sun instead of laser beams or microwaves for power. A highly reflective coating would harness the momentum of natural photons streaming from the sun.

Solar sails, perhaps as large as a kilometer or more, could power spacecraft that reach the nearest star outside the solar system after a 40 year-trip, Harris said.


RELATED STORIES:
Lesson Plan: Solar sails
June 5, 2000
NASA announces missions to seek planets, study gamma rays- October 15, 1999
October 15, 1999
Futuristic NASA space probe to blast off Saturday
October 23, 1998
NASA probe may rewrite book on space travel
October 2, 1998

RELATED SITES:
NASA
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Wright-Patterson Air Force Base

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