While we patiently wait for scientists to have that sci-fi breakthrough to create a warp drive, NASA is looking at an older design concept that could lead future starships outside the solar system.
Instead of heavier and heavier rockets, aerospace engineer Bruce Campbell noted that solar sail technology is currently the best option to reach max speeds to carry a ship off into deep space. Here’s what he said during a presentation at NASA's recent Future In-Space Operations (FISO) working group:
“There's nothing known to us now that could actually attain that kind of a speed using chemical propulsion.”
Space reports that a craft equipped with a sail 1,300 feet wide could travel 1.3 billion miles per year, which could take it outside the solar system in just a decade, according to researchers with NASA’s proposed concept mission the Interstellar Probe, which was pitched 15 years ago. The propulsion works by harnessing solar radiation pressure, which creates a continuous push and can accelerate a craft to insane speeds over time.
The concept was first demonstrated in 2010 and 2011 by separate Japanese and NASA missions designed to test the tech, but NASA plans to launch the biggest solar sail mission ever in 2016. The $27 million Sunjammer mission, named in honor of Arthur C. Clarke’s story, will use a 5-micron (0.0002-inch) thick material called Kapton to create its 124-foot sail. The sail weighs less than 70 pounds and can be packed down to the size of a dishwasher.
The Sunjammer will be fitted with sun-monitoring instruments and sent to a spot about 1.8 million miles from Earth, along the Earth-sun line. The craft will be used to monitor space weather events, providing a much better warning system for coronal mass ejections (CMEs) that could disrupt GPS signals and power grids.
L'Garde president Nathan Barnes, whose company is designing the Sunjammer’s sail, said solar sail tech could eventually spur a radical change in spacecraft design over the coming decades if the technology catches on:
“If solar sails get up and off the floor and start running, it will really come down to a new paradigm shift in spacecraft design. Instead of designing a spacecraft around 50 [kilograms] of hydrazine [110 pounds] that you have in your tank, you will now have to design that spacecraft and all of the components and all of the systems around a lifetime of propulsion.”
What do you think? Are solar sails the ticket to finally getting up enough speed to mount a trip outside the solar system?