Huge solar sail to cruise beyond the earth's orbit

Solar sail - largest ever, by seven times
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Not long after the 'little solar sail that wouldn't give up', NanoSail-D, re-entered the Earth's atmosphere recently and burned up (see http://www.sail-world.com/CruisingAus/Nanosail,-solar-sailing-craft,-returns-to-Earth/91415!Sail-World_story), another solar sail is in the planning, but this time it will be seven times bigger and will go far beyond the Earth's orbit.

NASA has picked this giant solar sail design as one of the must-have technologies to help future space exploration, agency officials announced Monday.

While dedicated sailors may be delighted that sailing is at the forefront of space exploration, there might be some eyebrows raised at the price, given the generally parlous condition of Western economies. NASA plans to pump a total of $175 million into three demonstration missions with launches anticipated by 2015 or so.

The solar sail was again selected as part of NASA's Technology Demonstration Missions program, one of the three which seek to infuse high-impact tech into the agency's future space missions.

Solar sail in action - artist's impression
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'These technology demonstration missions will improve our communications, navigation and in-space propulsion capabilities, enable future missions that could not otherwise be performed and build the technological capability of America's space industry,' said NASA chief technologist Bobby Braun in a statement.

After retiring its venerable space shuttle fleet last month, NASA is now transitioning to focus on reaching destinations in deeper space. President Obama, for example, has directed the space agency to get astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars by the mid-2030s.

Flying with a solar sail:
The solar sail demonstration mission will deploy and operate a sail seven times larger than any other one ever flown in space, researchers said.

That huge sail size makes this mission considerably different than small-sail projects like NASA's NanoSail-D, which was launched last year mostly as a proof of concept, officials said.

'This concept takes it much further than that,' James Reuther, director of the Crosscutting Capability Demonstrations division at NASA's Office of the Chief Technologist in Washington, told reporters Monday. 'It actually deploys a sail that's 38 meters by 38 meters (125 by 125 feet), which is big enough to actually enable a mission.'

The technology could thus help develop deep space missions that cruise through the cosmos without using any traditional propellant. It could also have other applications, officials said, such as helping set up systems to monitor space weather and clean up orbital debris.

One of its missions would be to park in a pseudo LaGrange point closer to the sun to double the current warning period for dangerous solar flares. Slated for launch in late 2014, the instruments aboard the solar sail craft would be using the sun's photon radiation to gently offset the corresponding pull of the sun's gravity.

The project will be led by principal investigator Nathan Barnes of L'Garde Inc. in Tustin, Calif.