NASA has announced the 2016 projects for the NIAC program that investigates the feasibility of future technology and missions. One of last year’s winners was to use wind-powered sails, just like Earth-bound ships, to sail around the solar system at extremely high speeds. The NASA-funded research by the University of Alabama seems to be progressing nicely as testing is now under way for the electrically charged wires that will make the sails work.
Sails on boats obviously work using the power of the wind. The sails on future spacecraft will work the same way but use the solar winds that spread from the Sun and through the solar system. The solar winds consist of protons and electrons that leave the Sun at hundreds of kilometres per hour. If spacecraft make use of the solar winds then they can achieve great speeds and without using valuable and heavy fuel reserves.
The Heliopause Electrostatic Rapid Transit System (HERTS) will use aluminium wires that form a large, circular sail. The propulsion happens because the wires use electrostatics to repel the incoming particles. The result is that the spacecraft travels at high speeds due to all the particles being repelled in the opposite direction. By turning on specific wires and leaving others off, the spacecraft could even be steered.
The obvious advantage of sailing is that it won’t use up fuel, just like the sail boats on our oceans. This would be revolutionary for space travel but more importantly it would mean extremely high speeds that make scientific progress faster as more missions are completed within short time frames. The sails would allow spacecraft to continue accelerating as they travelled and within months reach speeds of 150 km per second. It would only take about a decade for it to get as far as Voyager 1 did in its 35 years.
The first step in developing solar sails is to test the individual components and that’s what NASA is doing now. Scientists are creating the aluminium wires and putting them in plasma chambers that simulate the solar winds that pummel spacecraft. If the tests can prove that the wires will repel the protons and generate force, we’re one step closer to spacecraft that could rapidly travel all over the solar system cheaply and quickly.
Main image © NASA