NASA has announced a new vision for navigating space using sun beams as power.
The Diffractive Solar Sailing project scored $2 million in funding for research and development.
Sunbeams do exert force on humans and objects.
On Earth, it’s unnoticeable – but in the vacuum of space, light beams can propel even large objects forward.
If successfully engineered, solar sails will eliminate the need for expensive fuel and propulsion technologies in spaceflight.
“As we venture farther out into the cosmos than ever before, we’ll need innovative, cutting-edge technologies to drive our missions,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said.
Solar sails would work like kites in the wind – but instead of a kite, imagine a spacecraft, and instead of wind it’s powered by the Sun.
“Each photon imparts just a tiny bit of momentum, but the Sun pumps out billions and billions of them every second,” CEO of the Planetary Society and beloved celebrity scientist Bill Nye explains.
“If we have a spacecraft that’s low enough mass, and big and reflective enough then photons can give it a little push.”
However, that push goes in one direction – scientists are working on grating the sheet of the sail so that power can be spread and move the ship in three dimensions.
“Diffractive solar sailing is a modern take on the decades-old vision of light sails,” a researcher close to the project said.
Indeed, solar sails are an old idea reaching new levels of achievability.
An NBC News story noted a correspondence between famous scientists Johannes Kepler and Galileo.
“Provide ships or sails adapted to the heavenly breezes, and there will be some who will brave even that void,” Kepler wrote to Galileo in 1608.
Previous attempts to put light sails in space have met frustrating ends – a rocket carrying a prototype exploded before leaving Earth and another sail broke apart in the atmosphere.
NASA is hoping the $2 million in new funding will push solar sails from theory to reality.
This story originally appeared on The Sun and was reproduced here with permission.