Electric solar sails use long metal tethers that conduct electricity and interact with solar wind ions and propel a spacecraft. Invented in 2006, the technology could allow us to sail through space cheaper and faster than ever before: One day, the European Union's ESAIL project could take us to Pluto in as little as five years.
But the technology is still working out some kinks. About half of all orbital tether tests have either failed to deploy or snapped under the impact of micrometeoroids, according to the European Space Agency. But now the agency is saying they've made an unsnappable tether for a solar sail, just in time for the April launch of ESTCube-1, Estonia's first satellite.
At only about half the width of a human hair, the tether is made of several aluminum wires interwoven so that even if one is cut, an electric charge can still run through it to create thrust. Within Earth's magnetic field, the system could be used as a braking system to take spacecraft out of low orbit.
A 10-meter long version will be tested as a deorbiting method on ESTCube-1, a student-built satellite project from the University of Tartu. A longer, 100-meter tether will be used on CubeSat Aalto-1, a Finnish student satellite scheduled to launch later next year, according to the ESA.
simple enough idea, if one wire broke, use multiple wires. Though by interweaving them they are supposing that the reinforcement is sufficient to overcome the impact of other micrometeors. By making one thicker 'woven' strand it seems unlikely that whatever hits one strand wouldn't also hit all of the other strands. I'm sure they've put a lot of thought into this. Good luck , ESA.
If not the wires connecting the solar sail, how about the solar sail being hit by micrometeoroids. In order for a solar sail to work, they have to be big, REALLY BIG. Which makes they a larger target to hit by passing micrometeoroids.
But hey, I hope it works anyways! It would be awesome to travel about the solar system or even the cosmos,
just sailing awaY!!!!!
@Anylcon. No for E-SAIL the wires themselves are the solar sail. You need many of them to make the E-SAIL work properly and they have to keep spinning in space to stay strait and to deliver the angular momentum from the wires back to the spacecraft as well. Really ingenious.
This will only work for large scale propulsion with many wires and wires that are extremely long (kilometers). That`s why they need to keep spinning or else they would get tangled as well. Non the less getting to Pluto in 5 years is an insane propulsion technique and you would literally need no fuel other then solar (or nuclear) energy to charge the wires.
Since the wires can be extremely thin and lightweight perhaps they could also use backup wires.
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Unsnappable! Great, I want some to use as tow chains.
To be fair, that's the term that the ESA source article used -- although they did say 'hopefully unsnapable'.
Some actual strength numbers would be nice.
"...One day, the European Union's ESAIL project could take us to Pluto in as little as five years...."
A solar sail will not take anyone to Pluto in five years. At best, it will only drag a small, unmanned probe past Pluto in that amount of time. A solar sail capable of dragging a manned vehicle that could land on Pluto and return to earth would be many orders of magnitude larger than the device considered.
Did someone say dimondium?
So, space-cold aluminum cable. Still quite fragile. A nice coating of aluminum oxide crystals might add some durability, and being that we can make em in any shape, could be set into the cable wrap, ready to explode if impacted and thereby taking the brunt of the damage.
An aluminum wire stranded conductor would have good electrical conductivity. Plus a stranded aluminum cable would have a benign failure mode in the event of an impact, due to it high elongation rate. It would bend quite a bit before breaking.
On the other hand, one must be careful when using aluminum in a space environment. Aluminum rapidly loses strength at temperatures much above 300degF. And even in the cold vacuum of deep space, exposure to solar radiation can quickly cause aluminum to exceed its safe structural temperature limits.
So its a giant weed eater + the bad guy from Iron Man 2... in space.