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NASA is setting sail for the stars – literally. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., is developing space sails technology to power a mission beyond our solar system. “This will be humankind’s first planned venture outside our solar system,” said Les Johnson, manager of Interstellar Propulsion Research at the Marshall Center. “This is a stretch goal that is among the most audacious things we’ve ever undertaken.” The interstellar probe will travel over 23 billion miles beyond the edge of the solar system. Proposed for launch in a 2010 time frame, an interstellar probe – or precursor mission, as it’s often called – will be powered by the fastest spacecraft ever flown. Johnson says transportation is quite possibly the toughest challenge with interstellar missions because they have to go so far, so fast. “The difficulty is that rockets need so much fuel that they can’t push their own weight into interstellar space. The best option appears to be space sails, which require no fuel,” he said. Thin, reflective sails could be propelled through space by sunlight, microwave beams or laser beams – just as the wind pushes sailboats on Earth. Rays of light from the Sun would provide tremendous momentum to the gigantic structure. The sail will be the largest spacecraft ever built, spanning 440 yards. Researchers are optimistic about recent breakthroughs with strong, lightweight composite materials. A leading candidate for sails is a carbon fiber material whose density is less than one-tenth ounce per square yard – the equivalent of flattening one raisin to the point that it covers a square yard. In space the material would unfurl like a fan when it’s deployed from an expendable rocket.
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