NASA testing super-fast, enormous solar sail spacecraft

12 Apr 2016

A concept image of the HERTS E-Sail. Image via NASA/MSFC

To help us get to the edge of our solar system a lot faster, NASA has begun testing a new enormous solar sail capable of catching the powerful solar winds.

It seems that, just like our earliest trips across the vast oceans centuries ago, NASA is looking to the power of wind to once again bring us to whole new worlds faster than we could have gotten there before.

To that end, testing has begun at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center on such a solar sail, called the the Heliopause Electrostatic Rapid Transit System (HERTS) E-Sail, which would harness the power of solar winds, which remain invisible to the naked eye but bombard our planet on a daily basis.

While it will be another while yet before the sail is deployed in space for testing, the specifications for the craft reveal that extending from the centre of the aircraft would be 10 to 20 electrically charged, bare positively-charged aluminium wires, which would repel the protons in the solar wind, creating thrust.

Each of these tethers would be very thin at just 1mm in width, but will measure in length by as much as 20km and, as the spacecraft rotates at one revolution per hour, the centrifugal forces will stretch the tethers into position.

Travel to edge of solar system in 10 years

Where the HERTS E-Sail will particularly excel, NASA said, will be in its effective area in terms of astronomical units (AU).

At 1 AU, the E-Sail would have an effective area of about 600 sq km, slightly smaller than the city of Chicago, which would double to 1,200 sq km at 5 AU, the distance at which current spacecraft begin to lose their acceleration, placing it at the solar system’s asteroid belt.

This new sail concept, however, will allow the sail to accelerate well beyond this.

“Our investigation has shown that an interstellar probe mission propelled by an E-Sail could travel to the heliopause in just under 10 years,” said principal investigator on the E-Sail mission Bruce Wiegmann. “This could revolutionise the scientific returns of these types of missions.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic