Spacecraft To ‘Solar Sail’ Towards The Sun.

Sunjammer spacecraft to 'sail' towards the sun

Sunjammer will use a 13,000 square foot solar sail to propel itself nearly two million miles towards the sun Photo: NASA

 The UK Space Agency has announced that British scientists are now working with Nasa to develop the spacecraft, known as Sunjammer, sailing through space on sunlight power alone.

It will use a 13,000 square foot solar sail to propel itself nearly two million miles towards the sun. The sail will then help control the spacecraft in a steady position in orbit around the sun where it will act as a kind of forward observatory of the star at the centre of our solar system. Sensitive instruments on board will provide scientist with an early warning of solar storms that can produce streams of particles capable of damaging satellites and power grids on earth.

Dr Jonathan Eastwood, a lecturer in physics at Imperial College London who is one of the scientists working on the project, said the mission’s main aim is to demonstrate the use of solar sails as a way of powering and controlling a spacecraft on long missions.

He said it would also give scientists a greater understanding of so called solar wind – the stream of particles ejected from the sun – and its impact on the Earth. He said: “The current spacecraft we use to monitor the solar wind is only 1.5 million km (932,000 miles) from Earth.

“To go any closer requires a new kind of propellant to hold the spacecraft in place against the pull of the sun’s gravity and that is what the solar sail will do. “The main goal is to demonstrate that it is possible to fly and control a spacecraft using a solar sail, but then once in position, the sunlight hitting the sail will keep it in the same orbit.”

Nasa has been developing extremely lightweight materials to construct the huge sail that will power the spacecraft, also known as the Solar Sail Demonstrator. It will work much like a traditional sailing boat but rather than using the movement of air, it will use the stream the pressure created by the sunlight and the solar wind to tack its way into position.

The sail will be the largest ever tested – taking up around a third of an acre – but will weigh just 70 pounds. The mission is currently scheduled to launch in 2014. Once outside of the Earth’s atmosphere the sail will be deployed from a dishwasher sized compartment to begin its slow steady journey towards the sun. Although the amount of thrust generated by the sail will be tiny, Nasa hopes solar sails may provide a new solution for long distant robotic missions.

They could also be used to provide a way of removing some of the 8,000 pieces of space junk currently orbiting our planet or to carry supplies to future manned missions to other planets. There have even been proposals to use giant solar sails to divert asteroids that might hit the Earth.

The name Sunjammer comes from the title of a short story written by Arthur C. Clarke’s estate, in which he wrote about solar sailing. The UK Space Agency has announced three agreements to collaborate on large space projects with Nasa.

For Sunjammer British scientists are developing two instruments that will be carried on board the space craft to study the solar wind. The solar wind, also sometimes called space weather, is known to cause the northern lights and influence the weather here on Earth.

Large solar storms can produce particles that have the potential to damage satellites and interfere with electricity grids. British scientists are also contributing to a European mission called Solar Orbiter which will travel in 2017 closer to the sun than any mission before to study its polar regions for the first time.

Scientists are also building a seismometer to listen for Marsquakes that will be part of Nasa’s Insight mission due for launch in 2016. Mason Peck, Chief Technologist at NASA, said: “Cooperation and collaboration are critical to meet increasingly global challenges, and our partnership with the United Kingdom in space exploration and technology development is essential to meeting common goals.”

Dr. David Parker, chief executive of the UK Space Agency, added: “The UK has a long history of playing crucial roles in big US missions and a strong relationship with our colleagues at NASA. “If we want to continue this success and push the boundaries of exploration, we must continue to foster the industry’s growth through strategic investment and close partnership with other space-faring nations.”  The Telegraph UK

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