SPACECRAFT could one day traverse the universe using an electric solar wind sail developed at the Finnish Meteorological Institute. Developed two years ago, it is apparently fast becoming a reality.
It is said that electric sail propulsion might have a large impact on space research and space travel throughout the solar system.
The electric sail uses the solar wind as its thrust source and therefore needs no fuel or propellant.
The solar wind is a continuous plasma stream emanating from the sun.
Changes in the properties of the solar wind cause “auroral brightening” (the Northern Lights are familiar to many Scots) and magnetic storms, among other things.
The main parts of the device are long metallic tethers and a solar-powered electron gun that keeps the tethers positively charged.
The solar wind exerts a small, but continuous, thrust on the tethers and the spacecraft.
One of the crucial steps to achieving this dream is the success of the Electronics Research Laboratory of the University of Helsinki in coming up with a method for constructing a multi-line micrometeoroid-resistant tether out of very thin metal wires using ultrasonic welding.
The newly developed technique allows the bonding together of thin metal wires in any geometry; thus, the method might also have spin-off applications outside the electric sail. The electric sail could enable faster and cheaper solar system exploration. It might also enable economic utilisation of asteroid resources, for example.
While this may seem like a crazy dream, it should not be forgotten that humans are an incredibly ingenious species.