In a world where the Jetsons' wildest space dreams are becoming technological realities, NASA is re-purposing an ancient device combined with the energy of the future that may very well make travel to another solar system possible one day. The solar sail, used on a probe for a NASA mission called the Near-Earth Asteroid Scout, will be a test of sorts for solar-fueled travel beyond Earth's orbit.
The light-fueled NEA Scout will be traveling to a nearby asteroid to study it as well as to help determine whether astronauts would be able to land on it one day. Most importantly, the probe will be testing the use of solar power through its sails on this two-and-a-half-year mission. These same sails could one day power trips to Mars and other planets, as well as other stars in our galaxy, ultimately revolutionizing space travel and research.
Solar sails aren't the only technology being developed for interplanetary and interstellar exploration. Wait until you hear about electric sails, which could potentially get astronauts to Pluto in five years!
Solar Sails Would Allow For Cheap Exploration Of The Solar System
Solar sails may hold the key to sustainably traveling great distances beyond our planet's orbit in order to explore distant solar systems and asteroids. For one thing, solar sails use a very renewable energy: the sun. Using photons, particles from the sun that travel at the speed of light in a vacuum, the reflective sails, which resemble long thin sheets of mirrors, harness the sun's energy to create momentum for the spacecraft.
As National Geographic puts it, it's like when "a cue ball transfers its momentum when it smacks into another ball in a game of pool." This means that these sails could travel vast distances as long as it had access to the sun's energy. These solar sails could make travel to Mars and beyond a possibility. How much does the first solar sail-powered probe cost? $16 million. That's pretty cheap considering the potential distance the probe will be able to travel!
Solar Sails Will First Be Used For Near-Earth Asteroid Scout
The first NASA space probe to use solar sail technology will be the Near-Earth Asteroid Scout, which is headed towards an asteroid beyond Earth's orbit. Its mission, according to NASA, will be to "fly by and return data" from the asteroid 1991VG that may one day be a destination for human exploration. Even if it's not a destination, though, the NEA Scout will study and determine whether the human exploration of 1991VG is possible and if there's a danger that this asteroid could ever collide with Earth, since its relatively close to Earth and asteroids are relatively unknown in terms of behaviors. Have you seen the movies Deep Impact or Armageddon? It's best to be aware of possible asteroid collisions way ahead of time!
The NEA Scout Will Use The New Space Launch System
One interesting detail about the NEA Scout is that it'll use the new Space Launch System, which NASA is developing to replace the Space Shuttle System it has used for space missions since the 1980s. The NEA Scout will get a lift from the Space Shuttle System to exit the Earth's orbit before continuing its mission with its solar sails.
The Space Launch System will also be used for the Orion spacecraft, which will one day go on a mission to Mars. So the NEA Scout mission is also a test for the Space Launch System and our hopes for reaching the red planet.
It Will Take The NEA Scout More Than Two Years To Reach A Near-Earth Asteroid
Sure, the NEA Scout is going to harness the power of the sun in order to make it to its destination, but that doesn't mean it won't take some time. In fact, it's going to take this space probe two and a half years to reach 1991VG. NASA says the mission will launch sometime in mid-2018, which means they might not get anything interesting back from NEA Scout until at least 2020.