Space sails cruise through demonstration tests
NASA artist's concept of sail-powered spacecraft
(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."
|CNN's Allard Beutel looks at the 'space sail' interstellar mission.|
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
In both tests, the sails were composed of a carbon composite
developed by Energy Science Laboratories in San Diego,
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.
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