Tuesday, February 21, 2006

JPL solar sail missions?

Slashdot is carrying a story which links to an interesting interview with Neil Murphy of JPL about the future of solar sail technologies.

I first got interested in solar sails back when I was an undergraduate, more than a few years ago now, with the launch of the Russian Znamya-2 experiment, a spinning sail 60ft in diameter which was sucessfully deployed from a Progress vehicle after undocking from MIR back in 1993.

Disappointingly the funding crisis facing the Russian space programme meant that follow-up missions were cancelled and the technology, along with other interesting developments coming out of their programme around the same time, was moth-balled.

CREDIT: The Planetary Society
The Project Operations Pasadena (POP) room, the attic of the carriage house behind The Planetary Society, in the run up to the launch of Cosmos-1 on the 21st of June 2005. From left to right: Greg Delory, Sam Dallas, Emily Lakdawalla , and Paul Fieseler.

Then for a brief moment last year it looked like that the first operational solar sail would come from the private sector. We were left on tender-hooks for several days as to the fate of the Planetary Society's Cosmos-1 spacecraft and whether it had or had not obtained orbit. Again disappointingly for sail enthusiasts, in the end the Society were forced to conclude that the spacecraft was lost.

CREDIT: NASA/Marshall Spaceflight Center (via Digital Bits)
The NASA/ATK sail which was successfully tested in a series of ground-tests in the 100-ft.-diameter vacuum chamber at NASA's Glenn Research Center

It seems likely that, despite the sub-orbital tests flown by the Japanese, the first in-orbit free flying test of solar sail will be carried out by NASA, at least if the current funding crisis facing science caused by NASA refocusing on the manned programme doesn't cause the test flights to be cancelled. Ahead of a planned ambitious interstellar probe, it's possible that the frst flight of a NASA solar sail will be part of the ST9 programme, and has a tentatively sheculed launch date of 2010 or 2011.

Like a lot of sail enthusiasts who have been looking on from the side lines, I wish them well...