If you thought powerful rockets were the only way to quickly get from Earth into outer space and beyond, then NASA may soon surprise you with something known as E-Sail technology in a special project that they’re calling Heliopause Electrostatic Rapid Transit System (HERTS).
These are essentially electronic sails that will span approximately 40 kilometers in diameter. They’re electronic because they’re designed to absorb positively-charged protons from the Sun’s solar winds, and then discharge the negatively-charged electrons that result.
“The sun releases protons and electrons into the solar wind at very high speeds -- 400 to 750 kilometers per second,” said Bruce Wiegmann an engineer in Marshall’s Advanced Concepts Office and the principal investigator for the HERTS E-Sail. “The E-Sail would use these protons to propel the spacecraft.”
Such propulsion technology has the potential to give spacecraft the ability to leave our solar system in as little as 10 years, which beats current propulsion technology by a long shot.
For example, using current propulsion technology, the Voyager 1 spacecraft took 35 years to leave our solar system to get where it is now, and waiting that long isn’t exactly an easy task when you’re eager for answers about outer space.
These E-Sails are made of thin strands of wire that are about as thin as a paperclip, but up to 12.5 miles long. These are the strands that will collect propulsion from solar winds and move the spacecraft it’s carrying to its destination.
What’s more is researchers could actually steer the spacecraft in the direction they want it to go by controlling the electronic signals that the strands of wire will be subjected to. The more active ones will pull the spacecraft in a specific direction, while the less active ones will lag behind, causing a drag that steers the spacecraft in one direction.
E-Sails may be the very next revolution in space travel technology for researchers wanting to get a glimpse of what’s out there in less time.