Flying on sunshine

If you work long enough as a reporter, stories you once thought would never come together turn into reality. That’s what happened to me and solar sails.

For the longest time, the concept of flying spacecraft on solar radiation pressure — the infinitesimal push of photons bouncing off a surface — was science fiction. But solar sails are now science fact, as NASA’s Dean Alhorn told me in an interview for this feature. Japan flew the world’s first sail last year into interplanetary space, and NASA has one in Earth orbit right now. My husband and I went out one night recently to watch NanoSail-D pass overhead; it drifted over slowly, brighter than we expected, like a majestic satellite freed from its gravitational confines.

Now, after years of putting solar sail projects on the back burner, NASA isgearing up again. After my story went to press, the agency announced it would fund flight testing of a much-anticipated, much-larger sail made by the California company L’Garde. Solar sails, it appears, are here to stay.

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