When early explorers such as Di Gama, Columbus and Cook mapped our own world, they did so in sailing ships. The Age of Exploration owed everything to the power of sail. Incredibly, now that mankind is looking to explore deeper and deeper into space, sailing ships could again dominate this New Age of Exploration.

The sailing ships that opened up our planet harnessed the planet’s winds. The new age of spacecraft that could open up the heavens could harness the power of the sun with huge solar sails driving them forward.

Why use solar sails?

Currently when we send spacecraft to other parts of our solar system, once they have broken away from the rocket that put them into space they have no rockets of their own to accelerate. Rockets use vast amounts of fuel and to add rockets and big fuel tanks to these space probes would make them far too heavy to launch. So with no rockets or power to accelerate themselves and no friction to slow them down the space probes we currently send out glide to their destination at a more or less constant speed.

If these probes were fitted with solar sails they could use them as a form of propulsion to accelerate to their destination. Although the acceleration offered by solar sails is very small over a long period of time they could boost the speed of a spacecraft to 90km a second!!

Currently it would take a spacecraft about 40 years to travel to the edge of our solar system. Using solar sails this journey time could be reduced to 8 years.

How solar sails work

One side of the sail is highly reflective and reflects light from the sun. By reflecting these photons (light particles) a tiny amount of pressure is created on the sail which nudges the spaceship along slightly faster. Although the acceleration is tiny, over a long period of time this can really get the spacecraft motoring. (At 90km a second, the spacecraft would be able to travel from London to New York in just under a minute).

Other forms of propulsion for spaceships

The Electric Spacecraft

Ion engines use electrical charge and work by ejecting positive ions from the back of the rocket. The thrust produced is absolutely tiny but like solar sails the engine would run and run and over a long period of time would accelerate the spaceship to great speeds. NASA is already experimenting with this type of engine.

Bombing along the universe

For those of you who like their spacecraft to have a bit more of a kick, there is always the nuclear option. Nuclear powered spacecraft would use nuclear fusion (or possibly fission sometime in the future) to accelerate through space. This is a technology we are familiar with on earth but it also has its dangers. The production of radioactive waste and the dangers on launch make this a rather risky option.

Warp Factor 5

Anti-matter is about as close to the Star Trek warp drive as we can get. Antimatter is based on the theory that particles have anti-particles that have the same mass but opposite charges. When the two meet there are explosive reactions and all the mass is turned into energy. If this energy could be harnessed then antimatter fuel would be the most efficient possible. This technology is still 30 – 40 years away from being viable so we won’t be joining Captain Kirk and his chums just yet.

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