Solar Wind Sail May Make Human Flight to Mars and Back to Earth Possible

First Posted: Apr 28, 2015 10:05 AM EDT

Imagine soaring through space to Mars with the help of a solar sail. Sounds like something out of a science fiction movie, right? But it may just be possible. The E-sail is a novel propellantless technology that uses long, charged tethers to convert natural solar wind momentum flux into spacecraft thrust.

E-sail was first invented in Finland in 2006. In theory, it could make asteroid mining feasible by providing free logistics in the solar system outside of Earth's magnetosphere. After finding a suitable asteroid, a mining unit could be sent by the E-sail to extract the water from the asteroid. This could be done by heating the material and letting the evolving water vapor condense in a cool container. When the container is full, it can be separated from the mining unit and transported with an E-sail into the orbit of Mars or Earth, where it's split into hydrogen and oxygen and liquefied. This liquid hydrogen/oxygen fuel can then be used to fill the tanks of manned vehicles traveling between Earth and Mars.

This intermediate tanking idea could be huge when it comes to reducing the amount of launches that take place. In fact, during the trip, asteroid-mined water could be used as radiation shielding of a manned module to reduce the launch mass further.

The solar sail could be huge for future space travel. It could mean a way for travelers to "fuel up" while still in space. In addition, it may provide a new economically sustainable way to approach manned flights to Mars. In theory, these sails could make waypoints viable, which means that humans could travel to and from Mars.

The findings are published in the journal Acta Astronautica.

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