Solar sails primed for flight

The Planetary Society is set to test-launch the first solar sail mission in April 2001. The venture, which is sponsored by US based Cosmos Studios, a scientific entertainment channel, precedes the solar sails prime mission scheduled to launch between October and December this year.

Both deployments will be launched from a modified Russian submarine in the Barents Sea, although the solar sail scheduled for deployment in April will be lifted into a thirty-minute sub-orbital flight from a Russian Volna rocket.

The 30-meter diameter sail, configured in 8 triangular blades and deployed by inflatable tubes from a central spacecraft at the hub, is said to work like a mirror because reflected sunlight provides the force to push the sail.

The pressure of the sunlight is said to be powerful enough to push spacecraft between planets. According to the Planetary Society, travel beyond Jupiter would require powerful lasers aimed at the sails.

An inflatable re-entry shield is planned to bring the pictures of the deployment back to a landing and recovery site in Kamchatka.

The solar sail flight scheduled for October and December will commence from an 850 km circular orbit. The sail will be 600 square meters of aluminised mylar.

The Babakin Space Centre in Russia is building the spacecraft, while the Makeev Rocket Design Bureau has built the launch vehicle. The Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences is also a principal contractor.

The benefits of solar sails are said to be enormous: Cosmos Studios said the sails could theoretically attain speeds 10 times greater than NASA’s Voyagers 1 and 2, which travel at 61,153 kilometres per hour.

The mission is said to represent the first private mission of space exploration technology and the first mission by a private space interest organisation.