Written for the University of Michigan’s One Cool Thing mobile app (05/20/15)
An alternative to rocket propelled spacecraft
The first solar sail launches today, as reported by Gizmodo. Solar sailing is a method of space transport that uses nothing other than energy from the sun. A set of four large, mirrored Mylar sails will utilize the energy and momentum of photons traveling as packets of light as a continuous source of acceleration. Acceleration would be painfully slow, but in 100 days, a sail could reach 10,000 miles per hour. LightSail’s influence might make space travel a more affordable and practical way of exploring the stars. It costs a fraction of what typical space missions spend and — thanks to its solar powered nature — requires no fuel.