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17 August, 2004

Narrative imperative

Sometimes science fiction achieves reality by increments; tiny advances, each mundane or only of interest to techs, gradually coalesce and suddenly a new technology is ubiquitous.
Just occasionally, there's a spark of excitement about the process, and a sense of wonder at the outcome.

Spacecraft powered by solar sails have been a staple of sci-fi since 1924, according to the Guardian. Nowadays, rocket launches from Florida, French Guyana or Kazakhstan are routine, rarely even receiving TV coverage, so it's just so much 'cooler' that the launch of the first ever 'space sailing ship' will be from a Russian nuclear submarine, the furled sails replacing the rocket's cold war warhead. A second ex-military rocket will take the craft, 'Cosmos 1', to an 'altitude' of 800km, completely outside the Earth's atmosphere.

Here, the array of 15 m silver sails can be opened for maximum effect in the near-vacuum. The pressure exerted on the sails by the sun will be miniscule, accelerating the 100 kg craft by a barely measurable fraction of a millimetre per second, yet there will be negligible resistance to forward motion, and acceleration can continue as long as the sails are in sunlight. Within a day, it will be travelling at 100 mph, in 100 days, up to 10,000 mph - without having to carry expensive rocket fuel.

Solar sails are, for the moment, the only hope for interstellar missions. Although far slower than a chemically powered rocket, a space clipper would continue to accelerate as long as there was sunlight. Craft like Cosmos 1 could reach Pluto in five years. The fastest orthodox mission planned so far would take nine years.

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