NASA hopes to deploy NanoSail-D this year some 600 kilometers above Earth's surface. While that's not high enough for the photons' boost to overcome the drag of Earth's atmosphere, the flight will allow the agency to test the unfolding—in just 5 seconds—of almost 10 square meters of polymer no thicker than single-ply tissue paper. As it falls out of orbit, the sail will also provide a useful demonstration of how such materials could drag space junk to a fiery demise.
John F. Kennedy called space "this new ocean." This year, we're finally starting to sail on it. In May, Japan's space agency launched a craft that steals momentum from energetic photons blowing off the sun for a free ride through the solar system. The concept isn't exactly new. Back in 1974, NASA's Mariner 10 spacecraft used the light hitting its solar arrays to adjust its angle on the way to Mercury.
Given Japan's success, sailing prospects seem better than ever. NASA plans to launch a sail this year, and in 2011, the Planetary Society expects its own craft will be ready to fly. By the 2030s, the European company Thales Alenia Space hopes to launch "data clippers"—essentially sailing hard drives that could shuttle data between probes exploring Saturn's and Jupiter's moons and Earth.
Les Johnson, now NASA's deputy manager for the Advanced Concepts Office, helped develop solar sails for the agency in the early 2000s. Besides their rather practical applications, as probes monitoring Earth's poles or as part of a solar storm warning system, Johnson says a craft could sail to the nearest neighboring star system in less than 1000 years—a feat he estimates would take 75 000 years using chemical propulsion. Of course, for that you'd need a sail the size of Alabama deployed from a probe that's closer to the sun than Mercury.
(The Planetary Society)
This article originally appeared in print as "Space Sailing".