Sailing through space

Sommerzeit ist Urlaubszeit und der ein oder andere hat vielleicht einen Segeltörn vor sich… Auf azurblauen Meer schippern, dem Horizont entgegen…

Das kann man sich gut vorstellen. Aber segeln im Weltall? Wie soll das gehen? Beim sogenannten „Sonnensegeln“ wird ein Raumschiff im All alleine durch die Kraft der Sonne angetrieben.

Summertime is holiday time and some of you may have a sailing trip planned… sailing away on a clear blue sea towards the horizon…
That’s easy to imagine. But sailing through space? How does that go? With so-called “solar sails”, a spaceship is propelled through space by the power of the sun alone.
That the concept works in practice has been proven by the mission “LightSail 2”. On 25th June 2019, the tiny spacecraft with its rectangular-shaped sail, which only unfolds when the ship reaches outer space, took off – destination earth orbit. Since then, it has been flying its orbit by solar power alone.

“Mission Success!”
The good news was announced at the fifth “International Symposium on Solar Sailing”, which convened this year at the FH Aachen University of Applied Sciences.
The non-governmental organisation for the exploration of the solar system, “The Planetary Society”, is responsible for sending the tiny spacecraft into orbit and for answering the many questions asked by people curious about, for example, how it is even possible to power a spacecraft with solar power and without the need for any fuel. Well, it goes like this: LightSail 2 orbits the earth once every 90 minutes. Half of that time, the sail stands vertical to the sunlight. In this way, impetus from solar energy acts on the sail. Then the spacecraft turns through 90º and flies back towards the sun. Then it turns back again through 90º and the process repeats itself. This is not only more environmentally friendly but also makes travel possible over greater distances in space. Mission Success!

Solar sailing has great potential
And so, the 65 scientists of The Planetary Society, from eleven different countries in all, are now busy continuing their research on the current mission. “The Era of Solar Sailing has definitely arrived,” claimed the Rector of the FH Aachen, Prof. Dr. Marcus Baumann, in his welcoming speech.
By the way, the lecture given by Dr. Bruce Betts, Programme Director for LightSail 2 – which ended with a question round on controlled solar sail drive – was open to the general public and admission free. Lots of curious Aachen residents made good use of their holiday time and came along to listen to the latest research findings.