Here's how e-sail technology could make space travel a lot faster

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Jan 14, 2014, 4:11 PM EST (Updated)

A proposed mission to Uranus hints at a technology that could vastly imrpove the speed of space travel.

We've been sending unmanned space probes out into the bleakness of space for a long time now. Remember when the Gailileo left for Jupiter in 1989? It took six years for it just to get there. Six! An unmanned probe took more than half a decade to stay within our solar system.

And we've spent less and less time focusing on space travel, what with that whole "global economic collapse" thing happening. But people still cast their eyes upward, and very recently it's seeming like maybe we're ready to start talking about getting back out into the black again in a meaningful, long-term sort of way.

Take this Uranus mission, for example. A Finnish team has proposed a whole new method of travel that could drastically reduce the amount of time that would take. Finnish engineer Pekka Janhunen presented the idea of an electronic sail (or E-sail) in 2006 that is presently being tested in Earth orbit but could be used for long-distance travel.

The E-sail is meaningfully different from traditional solar sails in a few ways. A traditional solar sail simply generates thrust from the pressure of photons hitting the sail. An E-sail, on the other hand, would generate an electric field around a spacecraft that would deflect ionized particles and thereby generate an accelerated force that would propel the vessel. That field is still generated using solar power and should, hypothetically, produce a velocity of about 20 km/s. Estimations aim at getting to Uranus in six years.

Sure, that's the same amount of time Galileo took to get to Jupiter, but, man, that's Jupiter. There are hundreds of millions of miles between those two planets, so the difference is actually pretty staggering.

The question, as ever, is one of money. It's not uncommon for missions like this to cost over a billion dollars. Whether or not E-sails will cost more or less in an significant way remains to be seen.

Still, this is another tiny step. And a pretty cool one at that.

(via MIT Technology Review)