TECH

Solar 'Sailing Ship' Being Tested For The First Time

08/05/2015 08:54 BST | Updated 08/05/2015 08:59 BST

When Carl Sagan first imagined the prospect of a spacecraft that could be powered solely by wind, he probably couldn't have imagined that just years later, his dream would become a reality.

LightSail is just that spacecraft - a tiny probe that has the potential to fly through space powered by nothing other than solar wind.

lightsail

The small craft will make its debut flight on 20 May, and while it sadly won't be able to test its sailing abilities, the hope is to make it ready for a larger flight test later in the year.

How does it work? It's actually poetically simple. Whereas solar panels currently absorb the light, and transfer that into electrical energy, the solar sail simply captures the light with a huge mirrored sail.

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As the photons bounce off the sails this pushes the spacecraft along. It should come as no surprise that solar sail spacecraft are not fast, however unlike chemical rockets their fuel is renewable, and they will constantly accelerate if steered correctly.

This gives them huge potential for long-distance missions that otherwise would require large quantities of chemical fuel.

The craft is being developed by the non-profit organisation The Planetary Society under the direction of Bill Nye.