In 2014, NASA will be launching the world’s largest solar sail ever built. Sunjammer, the solar sail spacecraft, will act as a test bed for the new technology. If successful, the technology will be used in future missions to near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) and maybe even missions beyond the solar system.
The name Sunjammer was taken from a fictitious yacht race in a story by the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke.
The technology used in Sunjammer is revolutionary because it does not use any fuel and is affordable. The electric solar sail is expected to eventually compete with conventional solar sails.
Sunjammer is enormous in size. It measures 124 feet on one side and has a surface area of approximately 13,000 square feet.
Experts have determined that a Sunjammer-derived sail can visit upwards of six NEAs within six years of launch. This would be impossible with chemical rockets and most likely could not be achieved by electric propulsion. The sail uses no propellant and derives its thrust from sunlight, therefor it a very environmentally friendly.
Experts are optimistic about using a solar sail unfurled close to the sun, inside the orbit of Mercury. NASA intends to utilize the increased solar pressure near Mercury to accelerate a large solar sail to high speeds that will allow it to reach well beyond the edge of the solar system and into interstellar space.
NASA used contractor L’Garde, Inc. to build the spacecraft since the company has worked on many previous NASA projects. The Space Technology Program at NASA has oversight of the project.