Jack Vance's Incredibly Thin Solar Sail

Alliant Techsystems and NASA have tested the functional deployment and attitude control of an ultra-lightweight solar sail propulsion system. The 20-meter solar sail and boom system was fully deployed during testing at NASA Glenn Research Center's Plum Brook facility in Sandusky, Ohio.

The lightweight sail material is supported by a series of coilable booms, which are extended via remote control from a central stowage container about the size of a suitcase. The Plum Brook's Space Power Facility is the world's largest space environment simulation chamber, measuring 100-feet in diameter and 122-feet high.


(From Solar Sail Photos)

The coilable mast technology makes possible the gentle tensioning of reflective films on the sail that are just 1/30 the width of a human hair. Additional hardware includes payload fairing interfaces, in-space structural validation elements, an instrument extension boom, propellantless attitude control mechanization, and solar power panels.

When I read about this, I thought immediately about the very early references to solar sails made by Jack Vance in his excellent 1962 short story Sail 25:

Necessarily, the sail must be extremely large and extremely light. We use a fluro-siliconic film a tenth of a mil in gauge, fogged with lithium to the state of opacity. Such a foil weighs about four tons to the square mile. It is fitted to a hoop of thin-walled tubing...
(Read more about Jack Vance's light sail)

When I read this story in the early 1970's, I thought this would be impossible. One-tenth of a mil is just one-ten-thousandth of an inch. If you figure that a human hair is about 3 mils thick, and the ATK solar sail material is 1/30th as thick as a human hair - you get one-tenth of a mil. Pretty close for science fiction - and note the use of a "hoop" to spread it out with.

Read more at NASA tests solar sail technology and 20 meter solar sail and boom system.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 5/21/2005)

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