Astronomy Picture of the Day

Discover the cosmos! Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

2000 May 26
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Solar Sail
Credit: NASA/ MSFC Illustration

Explanation: Nearly 400 years ago astronomer Johannes Kepler observed comet tails blown by a solar breeze and suggested that vessels might likewise navigate through space using appropriately fashioned sails. It is now widely recognized that sunlight does indeed produce a force which moves comet tails and a large, reflective sail could be a practical means of propelling a spacecraft. In fact, the illustration above represents one concept currently being explored by NASA centres to develop an interstellar probe pushed along by sunlight reflected from an ultrathin sail. Nearly half a kilometre wide, the delicate solar sail would be unfurled in space. Continuous pressure from sunlight would ultimately accelerate the craft to speeds about five times higher than possible with conventional rockets -- without requiring any fuel! If launched in 2010 such a probe could overtake Voyager 1, the most distant spacecraft bound for interstellar space, in 2018 going as far in eight years as the Voyager will have journeyed in 41 years.

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Authors & editors: Robert Nemiroff (MTU) & Jerry Bonnell (USRA)
NASA Technical Rep.: Jay Norris. Specific rights apply.
A service of: LHEA at NASA/GSFC
& Michigan Tech. U.