Going back thousands of years, our ancestors figured out how to harness the power of the wind against sails to push explorers across the seas to all corners of the Earth. Now, we may be just beginning to use that same idea to push spacecraft to all corners of our universe. Today's NASA launch is a step in that direction.
We've launched some unbelievable stuff into space in the past, but nothing quite measures up to the payload onboard the Atlas V rocket that launched from Cape Canaveral. The rocket was carrying all sorts of futuristic tech, including small satellites that can be powered by the stars.
Among other items, the rocket is carrying small CubeSat mission satellites called LightSail A. The satellites were developed by the Planetary Society and include solar sails that could derive energy from photons in pure sunlight.
Fuel is heavy, finite, and expensive. So why not use energy from the stars? Every sun, including the one Earth orbits, kicks off a steady stream of charged subatomic particles called the solar wind—not to mention a whole mess of photons from up and down the electromagnetic spectrum. Throw up a piece of reflective material and that energy will—theoretically—push it into the universe.
The CubeSats will also have communications equipment, plasma propulsion and an ion drive.