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December 9, 2010

Are solar sails the way to go?

9 December 2010

There is a lot of debate about what is the best way to go about travelling through space. Arguments range from exploding nukes behind spaceships to power them to launching them around the planet "Farscape"-style.

But I quite like the idea of solar sails - perhaps we can even get close enough to the "Treasure Island"-type sailing ships from Disney's film. I quite liked the idea of the sailing ship as a spacecraft, altering the traditional views of sea travel and adapting it for space travel. I think the whole no-air thing would be a bit overwhelming though.

But I digress.

Future technology might allow us to navigate through the stars by "hitching a ride" on light. The solar sail is based on the possibility that the sunlight itself pushes objects away from it via a solar breeze. Astronomer Johannes Kepler, way back in the 16th century, suspected this, drawing his suspicion from the fact that comets always had their tails pointing away from the sun.

The solar breeze is what is powering NASA's NanoSail-D right now, so his theory was dead-on target.

The concept is that the sunlight, as it consists of photons or little particles, pushes against objects when it comes into contact with them, much like the wind pushes the sails of real ships on earth and causes movement.

What is nice about this idea as well is the fact that solar power such as this is completely fuel-free - we won't need to take thousands of tonnes of resources along with us to fly around space.

The only problem, I guess, is if you find a dead spot in space where there are no stars, you're pretty much screwed! :)