Astronauts of the future may “sail on light”

Before you start imagining pirate ships, cyborgs, and aliens like in Disney’s Treasure Planet, let’s get a few things straight…

Astronauts of the future will almost all be robots and spacecraft will not begin to look like old-school pirate ships anytime soon.  However, they just may have a sail on them.

Nasa has begun testing of a revolutionary new technology called the Heliopause Electrostatic Rapid Transport System, or HERTS.

Originally developed by Dr. Pekka Janhunen of the Finnish Meteorological Institute, the HERTS technology could potentially send ships and probes to the edge of our solar system (also called the heliopause) in less than 10 years.  This is more than three times faster than Voyager 1, which became the first spacecraft ever to cross the heliopause and reach interstellar space in 2012.  

Just like a sail catches wind over the ocean, the sun releases charged particles into solar winds that can be caught and harnessed.  One of the most promising ways being developed to harness the 400 to 750 kilometer per second solar winds is with an array of aluminum wires.   

The wires in the array are very thin.  About the thickness of a paper clip and very long.  Preliminary calculations put the length of the wires at about 12.5 miles or 219 football fields.  These wires extend outward from the probe in a radial fashion and are kept positively charged.  The positive charge creates a field that interacts with the charged particles of the sun.  Much like when you push two ends of a magnet together and they repel, the charged particles of the sun hit the wire and are repelled.  This transfers a small amount of force to the sail, causing it to move away from the sun.  

The idea is sound but there’s a lot that still needs to be tested. One of the key hurdles to overcome is keeping the wires charged.  As the charged particles hit the charged aluminum wires, it will eventually neutralize its charge and the force that makes the sail move will stop.  To stop this from happening scientists will need to attach a piece of equipment that keeps the sail charged.  

However, there is a lot of optimism around HERTZ.  It is clear to researchers that the design is flexible, adaptable and scalable.  HERTZ is the latest in NASA’s push to develop advanced propulsion technology and part of their Innovative Advanced Concepts Program.  A recent study conducted by experts identified this as the main technical hurdle for future exploration of interstellar space.

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