Going Where No Jetpack Has Gone Before
When is the last time you read a story about space exploration that included any of the following:
*An expert quoted as saying: “We ought to be doing things that are romantic.”
*An excerpt from a folk singer’s song entitled, “A Solar Privateer,” that goes: No cold LOX tanks or reactor banks/ just Mylar by the mile/ No stormy blast to rattle the mast, a/ sober wind and true/ Just haul and tack and ball the jack/ like the waterlubbers do.
*A lede that read: Peter Pan would be so happy.
If you answered never, you’re not alone, so don’t worry. That just means you missed the cover story from last week’s New York Times Science section on sailing in space. (Yes. Sailing. In Space.) It was a story about beauty, romance and the quixotic. It was a story to warm a jetpackist’s perpetually overheated heart.
The very un-NASA-sounding device — called a LightSail — is being pushed by the Planetary Society, in conjunction with Ithaca-based Cosmos Studios, which is run by Carl Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan. The actual constructing is taking place at Stellar Exploration Inc. in San Luis Obispo, Calif. The project has received considerable funding — enough for a test flight late next year — from a wealthy donor who, so far, would rather remain anonymous.
LightSail-1 will feature super thin (1/5, 000 of an inch thick) and incredibly large (perhaps as long as one mile) Mylar wings in the shape of a giant kite. The wings can absorb cosmic light, which, as the Times notes, “carries not just energy but also momentum.” The vessel would need to piggyback on a larger spacecraft, (the wings stuffed into a box measuring about three quarts, before unfolding to about 340 square feet), in order to reach outer space but would then be set free to roam, gently riding the rippling heavens.
Ready for the catch? (What, you thought there was no catch?) Dr. Louis Friedman, the Director of the Planetary Society, does not foresee a day when the likes of you and me can climb aboard LighSail-1 — or LightSail-2, 3, or 4, for that matter. He told the Times that “the only passengers on an interstellar voyage — even after 200 years of additional technological development — were likely to be robots or perhaps our genomes encoded on a chip, a consequence of the need to keep the craft light, like a giant cosmic kite.”
Okay, if I have to lose my seat on the interstellar delight to genomes encoded on a chip, then that’s a price I am willing to pay for living in that kind of future. Because we may never really have a jetpack but we apparently one day could have computer parts slathered with our biological likeness floating in space. And that’s not nothing.
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