Science Fiction Becomes Science Fact
People generally view the genre of science fiction as nothing more than — well — fiction. Films and novels that fall under this genre are assumed to be either enjoyable entertainment or just imagined ridiculousness. However, science fiction is linked closer to reality than most people realize. For many years, authors and directors alike have created fictional works that feature fabricated technologies of the future, which are often used for the purpose of advancing the plot. During the last century in particular, however, these fantasy items have started to become reality. One particular project the science community is in the process of successfully bringing to reality is solar sails. These sails provide a new way for rocket travel by utilizing the infinite power generated by the Sun.
Upon discovering that photons, which humans view as sunlight, create solar pressure that generates a small push, the concept of solar sails was born in 2005. By constructing the solar sails out of ultrathin, a highly reflective material, photons bounce off the sail and transfer their momentum to the spacecraft. Thus, it is through the force of the reflected sunlight that a rocket can sail across space only by relying on sunlight.
Although this project is currently underway, the original idea of using the sunlight as a “fuel” to propel spacecrafts is not a new one. In 1865, the beloved science fiction writer Jules Verne published his novel, From the Earth to the Moon. In this book, Verne crafts a fictional story about a group of weapon enthusiast attempting to build and send a space gun into the solar system. The characters aim to do this by the harnessing sunlight for travel. Although the topic is only mentioned briefly in the book, one of the main characters states that “there will some day appear velocities far greater than these [of the planets], of which light will probably be the mechanical agent…[and] we shall one day travel to the moon, the planets, and the stars.” The goal of the three main characters is to discover a way that allows them to fly to the moon with their space gun. However, the local crowd who hears of their proposed travel method is skeptical and causes the three to doubt the plan’s soundness, causing them to eventually abandon it.
Although the crowd in the book was speculative about the success of sunlight-propelled space travel, the people of the world today have no reason to be doubtful. For, in 2018, NASA plans to launch a space probe equipped with a solar sail that will be the “first NASA spacecraft that will venture beyond Earth’s orbit propelled entirely by sunlight.” NASA is currently working to improve the durability of solar sails after they were first tested in 2010. A small craft equipped with a solar sail was deployed in November of that year; however, the sail unfortunately burned up after only 80 days of space travel. Thus, aerospace engineers began working on improving the original design for its flight next year.
While the possibility of rockets sailing on sunlight may have once seemed fictitious and improbable, that speculative belief is now one of the past. Forget water; it is time to sail on sunlight!