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NASA's New "Sail Powered" Spacecraft Could Reach The End Of Our Solar System In Less Than 10 Years

The spacecraft would be the size of a small city...

21/07/2016 12:45

Until a miracle of science takes place we’re not going to have Star Trek’s warp drive anytime soon.

That hasn’t stopped NASA looking for alternative means of propulsion that could, eventually, take us beyond the solar system.

One such method is to use the sun’s solar wind as a means of propulsion, creating a massive sail which would harness that fast-moving light and then transform it into a means of moving.

NASA

Bruce Wiegmann, an engineer at Marshall’s Advanced Concepts Office has gone one step further though with a plan that sounds entirely like something out of science fiction.

What Wiegmann proposes is a spacecraft with 10 to 20 electrically charged aluminium wires which would fan out around the spacecraft like a giant jellyfish.

The wires, just one millimetre thick, would then repel the protons being pushed out from the sun, the result of which would be thrust.

Called an ‘E-sail’, Wiegmann’s proposal is bold for a number of reasons, the first being the sheer scale of the project.

Each wire would need to be around 12-miles long, making the spacecraft’s final diameter somewhere in the region of a city.

Then of course there’s the risks involved. As Thomas Zurbuchen, professor of astrophysics at the University of Michigan explains to the BBC: “There’s a bunch of problems with it,”

“If you look at the wires, they’re still going to be heavy because they’re metal,” he says. “They have to be high quality wires otherwise when you pass electricity along them they’ll burn up. Even so, if they get hit by a micrometeorite the wires will break.”

Despite the risks it’s actually one of the few proposals that could propel a spacecraft out beyond our solar system within a reasonable time-frame.

Rather than the 30 years it has taken Voyager to escape our solar system a spacecraft using this technology could do it in just 10.

 While proposed in 2014, the plan is to start getting the calculations in place so that a real-world demonstration can take place in the early 2020s.

NASA’s Most Famous Images:

  • Edward H. White II, pilot of the Gemini 4 spacecraft, floats in the zero gravity of space with an earth limb backdrop circa November 1965.
  • Kinescope images of astronaut Commander Neil Armstrong in the Apollo 11 space shuttle during the space mission to land on the moon for the first time in history on July 20, 1969
  • The ascent stage of Orion, the Apollo 16 Lunar Module, lifts of from its descent stage to rendezvous with the Apollo 16 Command and Service Module, Casper, with astronaut Thomas Mattingly aboard in lunar orbit on 23rd April 1972.
  • Five NASA astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis look out overhead windows on the aft flight deck toward their counterparts aboard the Mir Space Station in March of 1996.
  • Photograph of the Milky Way Galaxy captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. Dated 2007.
  • The exhaust plume from space shuttle Atlantis is seen through the window of a Shuttle Training Aircraft (STA) as it launches from launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center July 8, 2011 in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
  • A United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket carrying NASA's first Orion deep space exploration craft sits on its launch pad as it is prepared for a 7:05 AM launch on December 4, 2014 in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
  • A military pilot sits in the cockpit of an X-15 experimental rocket aircraft, wearing an astronaut's spacesuit circa 1959.
  • Echo 1, a spherical balloon with a metalized skin, was launched by NASA on 12th August 1960. Once in orbit the balloon was inflated until it reached its intended diameter of 30 metres and it was then used as a reflector to bounce radio signals across the oceans.
  • Four views of Earth rising above the lunar horizon, photographed by the crew of the Apollo 10 Lunar Module, while in lunar orbit, May 1969.
  • American geologist and Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Hagan Schmitt stands next to the US flag on the surface of the moon, during a period of EVA (Extra-Vehicular Activity) at the Taurus-Littrow landing site, December 1972.
  • The space shuttle 'Enterprise' (NASA Orbiter Vehicle 101) makes its way along Rideout Road (Alabama State Route 255) to the Marshall Space Flight Center near Huntsville, Alabama, 15th March 1978.
  • A crowd of people, viewed from behind, watch the launch of the first NASA Space Shuttle mission (STS-1), with Columbia (OV-102) soaring up into the sky, leaving a trail of exhaust smoke, in the distance from the launchpad at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, USA, 12 April 1981.
  • Astronaut Bruce McCandless II photographed at his maximum distance (320 ft) from the Space Shuttle Challenger during the first untethered EVA, made possible by his nitrogen jet propelled backpack (Manned Manuevering Unit or MMU) in 1984.
  • Aerial shot of the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery (STS-41-D) as it takes off, leaving a trail of exhaust smoke, from Kennedy Space Center, Florida, USA, 30 August 1984.
  • Two technicians inside a Space Shuttle external tank, circa 1985.
  • An astronaut's bootprint leaves a mark on the lunar surface July 20, 1969 on the moon. The 30th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon mission is celebrated July 20, 1999.
  • Astronaut Charles Moss Duke, Jr. leaves a photograph of his family on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 16 lunar landing mission, 23rd April 1972.
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