Inter-planetary travel is one of the challenges that humanity has yet to overcome. Presently, our technology can only bring us outside of the influence of Earth’s gravity and into its immediate orbit. Even Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic can only promise to provide sub-orbital spaceflights for humanity. For inter-planetary travel, the popular consensus was that we’ll have to wait for decades or centuries. May 20, 2015 changed this perception though. On this day, The Planetary Society launched an Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral without much fanfare or media coverage. That rocket contained Lightsail, a special spacecraft that makes use of solar energy to push itself to speeds that our present rocket propulsion systems can never achieve.
Lightsail isn’t the first of its kind to be launched into orbit. It’s also not the first time the world has heard of the concept of solar sails for space travel. Renowned astronomer Carl Sagan (who is also the founder of The Planetary Society) talked about this technology on national TV (as a guest on Late Night with Jimmy Carson) sometime in the 1970s. For some reason, the idea of a spacecraft being powered by the sun’s light wasn’t really given that much of a thought that time. The world had to wait for more than three decades before IKAROS, an experimental spacecraft by Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), successfully demonstrated the feasibility/viability of using solar sail technology in space.
A Beacon of Hope
Five years after IKAROS’ success, The Planetary Society finally got its chance to launch its own spacecraft that made use of solar sails. To fund the project, Bill Nye (current face of The Planetary Society as well as its CEO) started a crowd-funding campaign on Kickstarter. To say the campaign was a success is an understatement. With seventeen days left (as of this writing), Lightsail now has more than four times its funding goals. However, the project still had its share of difficulties even with the crowd funding campaign’s success. In the weeks that it had been in the Earth’s orbit, Lightsail had gone from promising project to being deemed a failure by most people when its ground crew lost contact with it for about a week. Thankfully, contact was re-established and spacecraft finally deployed its sails successfully. In turn, this has resulted in scientists and researchers deeming it as a beacon of hope for the future of inter-planetary travel.
Is the Solar Sail Truly the Future of Space Travel?
As evidenced by the numerous problems that developed while the Lightsail was still in orbit, the technology for solar sail-powered spacecraft still has a long way to go. However, you’ll have to admit that the idea of using this technology to power the spaceships of the future is logically sound. With its only requirement being the sun’s power, we might find ourselves in a future that has dirt cheap space travel thanks to solar sails. Hopefully, the Lightsail succeeds and proves that space travel is possible through this technology.
Gordon's expertise in the area of industrial energy efficiency and alternative energy. He is an experienced electrical engineer with a Masters degree in Alternative Energy technology. He is the co-founder of several renewable energy media sites including Solar Thermal Magazine.