NASA Begins Testing Electric Sail Technology to Reach the Edge of Our Solar System

Tuesday, 12 April 2016 - 1:47PM
Space
Solar System
Tuesday, 12 April 2016 - 1:47PM
NASA Begins Testing Electric Sail Technology to Reach the Edge of Our Solar System
Right on the heels of Stephen Hawking and Yuri Milner's announcement that they're developing tiny spacecrafts powered by light from laser beamsNASA has announced that they are about to begin testing electric sails, or "e-sails," that are propelled by light from the Sun and could take a spacecraft right to the edge of our solar system. 



The Heliopause Electrostatic Rapid Transit System (HERTS) project, which is beginning rounds of testing at NASA, has spent the last few years developing e-sails, which uses solar wind as a propulsion system to reach the heliopause, the outermost edge of the heliosphere, or the bubble-like region of space that lies far beyond the orbit of Pluto.
Opening quote
"The sun releases protons and electrons into the solar wind at very high speeds -- 400 to 750 kilometers per second," Bruce Wiegmann, principal investigator for the HERTS E-Sail, said in a statement. "The E-Sail would use these protons to propel the spacecraft."
Closing quote


The e-sails would consist of a collection of wires that are extremely thin--approximately the width of a paperclip--attached to a spacecraft that turns slowly, keeping the wires taut. The charge on the wires would electrostatically repel the protons in the solar wind, which would then, in turn, propel the spacecraft away from the sun, allowing the probe to move at unprecedented speeds.

The NASA team will test this system in a controlled plasma chamber that simulates the plasma in space. They will observe the rate of proton and electron collisions, thereby gathering modelling data that will allow them to scale up the e-sails, as the sail would need to have a large effective area in order to travel into deep space. This increased area, and the harnessing of solar wind rather than the Sun itself, will be key to distinguishing the technology from solar sails, which often lose acceleration once they reach the asteroid belt and the photons dissipate.

Opening quote
"The same concerns don't apply to the protons in the solar wind," said Wiegmann. "With the continuous flow of protons, and the increased area, the E-Sail will continue to accelerate to 16-20 AU -- at least three times farther than the solar sail. This will create much higher speeds."
Closing quote

If the tests are successful, the E-Sail could revolutionize space travel as we know it, taking us to the edge of the solar system--and possibly interstellar space--on a human timescale.

Opening quote
"Our investigation has shown that an interstellar probe mission propelled by an E-Sail could travel to the heliopause in just under 10 years," Wiegmann said. "This could revolutionize the scientific returns of these types of missions."
Closing quote
Science
NASA
Space
Solar System

Load Comments