NASA has announced plans to launch the world’s largest solar sail in 2014 — and it will be travelling an incredible two million miles from Earth.

The giant solar sail will use photons from the Sun for propulsion, paving the way for various exploration missions that could be accomplished only through the use of “propellant-less propulsion” technology.

Dubbed Sunjammer, the giant solar sail measures about 124 feet on a side and boasts a total surface area of nearly 13,000 square feet.

Led by industry manufacturer L’Garde Inc of Tustin, California, the Solar Sail Demonstration mission builds on two successful ground-deployment experiments led by L’Garde in 2005-2006, NASA said.

It also leverages the successful deployment of the NanoSail—D sail, a 100-square-foot test article NASA launched to Earth orbit in early 2011 to validate sail deployment techniques.

Sunjammer is potentially applicable to an advanced space weather warning system, which could provide more timely and accurate notice of solar flare activity.

During its own test flight, the new Solar Sail Demonstration mission — dubbed “Sunjammer” by its designers in honour of the 1964 Arthur C Clarke story of the same name, in which he coined the term “solar sailing” — will deploy and operate a sail approximately 124 feet on a side.

That’s almost 13,000 square feet, or a third of an acre — seven times larger than any solar sail tested in space to date. But when collapsed, it’s the size of a dishwasher and weighs just 70 pounds.

Attached to a 175-pound disposable support module, the Sunjammer is easily packed into a secondary payload on a rocket bound for low-Earth orbit.

The sail will unfurl in space to catch the sunlight.

During the flight experiment, researchers will test attitude controls and assess sail stability and their ability to trim.

They also will execute a navigation sequence with mission—capable accuracy.

Once proven, solar sail technology could enable a host of versatile space missions, including flying an advanced space-weather warning system to more quickly and accurately alert satellite operators and utilities on Earth of geomagnetic storms caused by coronal mass ejections from the sun.

(This article was published on February 10, 2013)
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