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.
The satellites will separate from the rocket, but the solar sails won't come out for nearly a month in order to give ground control time to lock on to the radio signal from the CubeSats.
These sails can increase satellite endurance by reducing the need for onboard fuel. In the future, the solar sails can help propel satellites on missions outside of the solar system, but right now they're still in a test phase.
“Unfortunately solar sails need to be way out of the atmosphere to work,” says [Rex Ridenoure, CEO of Ecliptic Enterprises Corporation and one of the lead engineers]. The solar sail, once deployed, will cause perturbations in the orbit, and the satellite will tumble to its fiery, upper atmospheric end. So this first mission is proof-of-concept, to make sure the sail can deploy at all.
Next summer, there are plans in place to launch LightSail B further out in space to test its maneuverability.
The satellites and solar sails weren't the only high-tech gear on board the Atlas V rocket. It's also carrying a reusable orbital vehicle called X-37B that can be used for classified missions by the Department of Defense.