Edward Montgomery's team and a team from Ames Research Center hope to deploy a solar sail called NanoSail-D this summer.
(NanoSail-D deployment video)
A SpaceX Falcon 1 rocket will carry it into space from Omelek Island in the Pacific Ocean between July 29th to August 6th.
"NanoSail-D will be the first fully deployed solar sail in space, and the first spacecraft to use solar pressure as a primary means of attitude control or orbital maneuvering," says Montgomery, who is NanoSail-D's payload manager.
"We are always on the lookout for opportunities. Ames owns a slot on the Falcon 1 launch and asked us if we wanted to go along. We said, 'Yes!' We'll use the Poly Picosatellite Orbital Deployer, or P-POD, developed by the University of California Polytechnic Institute to deploy our sail."
Science fiction fans have been looking forward to this for generations. As Arthur C. Clarke's wrote in his 1964 short story Sunjammer.
"Hold your hands out to the sun. What do you feel? Heat, of course. But there's pressure as well – though you've never noticed it, because it's so tiny. Over the area of your hands, it only comes to about a millionth of an ounce. But out in space, even a pressure as small as that can be important – for it's acting all the time, hour after hour, day after day. Unlike rocket fuel, it's free and unlimited. If we want to, we can use it; we can build sails to catch the radiation blowing from the sun."
It seems incredible, but the basic idea that light pressure would provide a mechanical means of propulsion may be found in Jules Verne's 1867 novel From the Earth to the Moon:
"...there will some day appear velocities far greater than these, of which light or electricity will probably be the mechanical agent..."
This is particularly noteworthy since the existence of light pressure was not even proven in theory until 1873 (by James Clerk Maxwell).
The Russian theoretician Konstantin Tsiolkovsky worked on the idea of solar sailing in the 1920's, but the first work to spark the interest of scientists and sf writers came in 1951, with the publication of "Clipper Ships of Space." This Astounding Science Fiction article was not a story, but an exposition of the principles of solar sails.
Cordwainer Smith wrote what was probably the first actual story about solar sails in 1960. "The Lady Who Sailed The Soul" took place in the far future, when people ventured on decades-long voyages in ships equipped with solar sails "tissue-metal wings with which the bodies of people finally fluttered out among the stars."
Soon thereafter, a 1962 short story by Jack Vance appeared - a classic named "Sail 25." This is the story of a "sink-or-swim" training cruise in which six space cadets find themselves under the unforgiving tutelage of Henry Belt, who stated that it was his fate to one day die in space:
The ship, great sail spread to the fading sunlight, fled like a ghost - out, always out. Each of the cadets had quietly performed the same calculations, and arrived at the same result. If the swing around Jupiter were not performed with exactitude, if the ship werre not slung back like a stone on a string, there was nothing beyond..."
(Read more from Sail 25).
Cordwainer Smith wrote another story in 1963 with more descriptions of this technology: "immense sails - huge films assorted in space on long, rigid, coldproof rigging."
Via NASA; thanks to Adi for writing in with the story tip.
Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 6/27/2008)