To sail on winds of sunlight has long been a dream of rocket scientists.
The Planetary Society, a nonprofit that promotes space exploration, announced Monday that it would send the first of two small craft testing the technology of solar sails into orbit this May, tagging along with other small satellites on an Atlas 5 rocket.
“We strongly believe this could be a big part of the future of interplanetary missions,” said William Sanford Nye — better known as Bill Nye the Science Guy — the chief executive of the organization. “It will ultimately eventually take a lot of missions a long, long way.”
When photons — particles of light — bounce off a shiny surface, they impart a tiny bit of momentum, an effect that comes directly from the equations of electromagnetism published by the physicist James Clerk Maxwell in the 1860s. In his 1865 novel, “From the Earth to the Moon,” Jules Verne appears to have been the first to realize that this force could be harnessed for space travel. The bombardment of sunlight over a large area can gradually but continuously accelerate a spacecraft.
LightSail, a solar sail spacecraft, is to be launched into orbit in May. Its Mylar sail will be about the size of a loaf of bread when it is launched, but will be unfurled to a span of almost 345 square feet after a month of testing.
Read more: Hoping to Set Sail on Sunlight
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