(Image Credit: John Ballentine)
Whether by nuclear, chemical or magic (note: joking on the last item) humanity has used rockets to transport ourselves and our robotic friends across the solar system.
Even though rockets can get us off world in a hurry, they may not be too efficent when traveling around our own star system (not to mention reaching another one).
In order to help humanity receive the "extra thrust" necessary to conquer the final frontier, the Ames Research Center (of NASA) will be deploying the first solar sail to soar throughout the solar system.
(Physorg.com) Montgomery's team and a team from Ames Research Center (led by Elwood Agasid) hope to make history this summer by deploying a solar sail called NanoSail-D. It will travel to space onboard a SpaceX Falcon 1 rocket, scheduled for launch from Omelek Island in the Pacific Ocean during a window extending from July 29th to August 6th (a back-up extends from August 29th to September 5th). [...]
"It's not so much about how far a sail will go compared to a rocket; the key is how fast," says Montgomery. "The Voyagers have escaped the solar system, and they were sent by rockets, but it's taken more than three decades to do it. A sail launched today would probably catch up with them in a single decade. Sails are slower to get started though. So, for example, between the Earth and the moon, rockets might be preferred for missions with a short timeline. It's a trip of days for rockets, but months for a solar sail. The rule of thumb, therefore, would be to use rockets for short hops and solar sails for the long hauls."
Even though alternative forms of "space thrust" have been developed (such as the ion propulsion system), the solar sail is one of the few technologies that would enable humanity to become an interstellar species, and not merely an interplanetary one.
Although this technology would be perfect for visiting (and perhaps colonizing) the Kuiper Belt Objects, it may help our young race to establish a quick transport to the outer gas giants (not to mention Pluto as well).
Update (7/5): It looks like SpaceX will be launching the Solar Sail for NASA!
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