Solar sails take flight

Space Shuttle Endeavour and its five-member crew this week will open a new chapter in the history of the International Space Station (ISS) by unveiling a pair of giant solar wings on the orbiting platform.

Endeavour will carry a 17-ton package of immense solar arrays and associated batteries, electronics and cooling equipment to the space station – the heaviest and largest station elements flown to date. Once deployed on ISS, this first set of solar sails will measure 240 feet tip-to-tip, a wingspan greater than that of a 777 jumbo jetliner.

‘When all the solar arrays are fully deployed, they will generate enough power to run 15 average-sized homes on Earth,’ said W Michael Hawes, Deputy Associate Administrator for Space Development at NASA Headquarters. ‘People will be able to look up and see the brightest new star in the sky. Only the Moon and star Sirius will shine brighter.’

Folded into two boxes only 20 inches thick for launch, the solar arrays contain more than 64,000 individual power-generating cells.

Veteran astronaut Brent Jett will command the mission whilst Michael Bloomfield will serve as pilot. Joe Tanner, Carlos Noriega and Canadian Space Agency astronaut Marc Garneau will accompany them.

Astronauts Tanner and Noriega will serve as high-tech electricians, performing space walks to install the giant solar panels, connecting wires and cables. Special cameras affixed to their helmets will capture stunning views of their work in progress.

The current set of arrays will quintuple the amount of electrical power available on the station, paving the way for delivery of the first research laboratory, the US Destiny module, on STS-98 in January 2001. Once in orbit, the Destiny module will, claim NASA, be the most sophisticated science laboratory ever launched into space.

The solar panels will provide a power boost to the station and its Expedition One crew, led by American Commander Bill Shepherd, allowing the crew to begin its first science experiments.

For more information on how to see the ISS in the night sky, visit: spaceflight.nasa.gov/realdata/sightings/index.html