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 user 2005-05-08 at 10:44:00 am Views: 59
  • #9170

    Ohio Lab Tests Sun-Powered Space Propulsion System

    SANDUSKY,Ohio(May 05)-Scientists working with a
    synthetic material 100-times thinner than a piece of paper are testing their
    theory that the sun can power interplanetary spacecraft. They believe that
    streams of solar energy particles called photons can push a giant, reflecting
    sail through space the way wind pushes sailboats across water.

    The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has
    invested about $30 million in space-sail technology, something that existed
    solely in science-fiction novels a decade ago. Yet the reflective solar sail
    could power missions to the sun and beyond within a decade.

    ”It’s OK to breathe on it and touch it,” said David
    Murphy, of ATK Space Systems, showing off the sail.

    ATK Space Systems, based in California, is one division of
    a $2.4 billion company that makes rocket motors, advanced weapons systems and
    ammunition for the military and the Department of Homeland Security. It has
    about 14,000 employees at operations in 23 states.

    Last year it delivered 1.2 billion rounds of small-caliber
    ammunition to the Army.

    The Space Systems division developed the solar sail, which
    is being tested in the world’s largest vacuum chamber at the Cleveland-based
    NASA Glenn Research Center’s Plum Brook Station in Sandusky. It has a space
    environment simulation chamber 100 feet in diameter and 122 feet high.

    In that chamber, Murphy displayed four silvery, triangular
    pieces of sail stretched over four long booms, which form a square about 70 feet
    on each side. Murphy and others want to study how the sails will deploy and
    operate in a vacuum under various temperatures.

    ”We’re going to cool it down and shake it out,” Murphy

    Just in case, the fabric, which resembles Mylar, has
    rip-stop threads to keep it from pulling apart when the chamber is closed and
    the air is pumped out.

    ”To get a lower pressure you’d have to go to space,” said
    Edward Montgomery, an engineer from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in
    Huntsville, Ala.

    The chamber has been used to test rocket components,
    radiators for the International Space Station and the crash bags that protected
    twin rovers when they landed on Mars last year.

    The plasticlike fabric used to make the sails is a spinoff
    from technology used to develop spacecraft paint.

    First missions – scientific payloads of a few hundred
    pounds – are likely to be to the inner planets, Venus and Mercury, and to the
    sun. But NASA scientists think the technology is a good bet for eventually
    powering spacecraft into deep space.

    Since its fuel is free and doesn’t have to be stored, a
    craft with solar sails would not have to slingshot around the moon or other
    planets for a gravity boost to reach distant destinations, as other craft

    Craft propelled by solar sails could be launched on
    conventional rockets or released from space stations. In space, the force of
    sunlight would push the reflective sails, causing the craft to move, said NASA
    Marshall physicist Les Johnson.

    The first sail tested in space will be about 130 feet on
    each side. Those on an actual mission could be twice as large.

    While its thrust is low, it would be continuous so that the
    craft accelerates steadily, eventually reaching speeds of tens of thousands of
    miles an hour. Changing the sail’s angle to the sun would allow the craft to
    slow down or speed up.

    ”Just by morphing its shape we can get it to turn,”
    Montgomery said.

    With the science worked out, Murphy said, it is now a
    matter of building larger sails.

    ”We have everything we need to do this,” he