Cosmic “glider” up to 360.000 kilometers per hour fast

New revolutionary propulsion system for space probes and spacecraft starts maiden flight in 2004

The fastest "sailing ship" of the world will celebrate its maiden voyage not in the terrestrial-maritime, but in the cosmic ocean. At Ila Berlin 2000, this year’s International Aerospace Exhibition, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), together with their industrial partners Kayser-Threde GmbH and Invent GmbH, presented to the public for the first time what is probably the most unusual sailing ship of all time: DLR’s Solar Sail.

In just over four years, the futuristic-looking, 20-by-20-meter, ultra-lightweight device (total weight: ten kilograms) with high-sensitivity microsatellites on board is scheduled to embark on its first research expedition. The foundation stone for this development was laid by DLR engineers on 17 January 2009. December of last year in Koln-Porz, when the separate triangular sails were successfully deployed and tensioned with the aid of lightweight masts made of carbon fiber composite material (CFRP).

The visionary idea of a solar sail in space was already envisioned by the Russian space pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and by the German engineer Hermann Oberth in the 1920s. However, the technical know-how for this highly exotic proposal was still lacking at the time. Today this is available in the form of the latest high-tech technology. It is therefore not surprising that other space nations are also working hard on the development of a solar glider, above all NASA, which is not unaware of the innovative character of such a means of transport.

The solar glider is powered by the solar wind. When the photons emitted by the sun hit the glider’s 400 square meters of coarse 7.5-micrometer-thick aluminum-vaporized high-performance foil, the jolt causes the lightweight spaceship to reach a surprisingly high speed. As in classical sailing according to the wind, a sailing spacecraft must orient itself to the position of the sun, from which the driving light beams come. In doing so, it can reach an enormously high speed. "On the way to the planet Pluto, the solar sailor could accelerate up to 360 000 kilometers per hour", Manfred Leipold of DLR explains (see The most unusual glider of all time).

Since the fuel-less spacecraft can draw on unlimited propulsion resources, it is particularly suitable for interplanetary and sometimes even interstellar long-term missions. To commercialize the new technology of the solar sail in space, the new company HPS High Performance Space Structures GmbH was founded.

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