The future of space exploration looks bright indeed with some of the ingenious non-polluting rockets on the drawing board! Leading the way is the solar-sailor, a spaceship that uses the power of the sun the explore the solar system. Just as the ocean explorers of old used the wind to sail the oceans of the world, solar-sailing rockets use the charged ions that comprise the solar wind to explore the solar system!
How does solar-sailing work? Imagine a spacecraft with a solar panel the size of a football field! Yes, a football field, and maybe larger to capture the solar wind that exists in space. Even though acceleration is very slow, in time this acceleration builds and builds until the very high speeds required to navigate our solar system can be achieved because there is no friction in space. Even a tiny push from these charged ions that hit the “solar sail” can be increased until the spacecraft achieves speeds of hundreds of thousands of miles per hour! The beauty of this method is that there is no pollution, just like solar energy!
The drawback of solar sailing is the time it takes for the spacecraft to achieve high speeds. It takes a lot of energy to propel a spacecraft to high speeds, but there is a lot of untapped energy potential in space. The spacecraft needs to have a very large solar panel to collect that energy in the solar wind in order to achieve the speeds necessary to navigate the solar system. The distances in our solar system are great, and we all know that Earth is 93 million miles from the sun. But Earth to Pluto is close to six billion miles! That is a tremendous distance, and one that the New Horizons spacecraft is traveling right now! New Horizons is not a solar sailor, but it will eventually reach Pluto by the middle of this decade, a journey lasting nine years!
As the continued exploration of our solar system and beyond proceeds, new and exciting spacecraft are being designed that not only will be non-polluting, but will achieve the extremely high speeds required. The universe is a big place, and our solar system is but a tiny fraction of it. But conquering the vast distance will be an exciting challenge for spacecraft engineers now and in the future!