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Electric sail invention approaches implementation

The electric solar wind sail developed at the Finnish Meteorological Institute has moved rapidly from invention towards implementation. Electric sail propulsion might have a large impact on space research and moving in space in general.

The electric solar wind sail developed by Dr. Pekka Janhunen at the Finnish Meteorological Institute might revolutionise travelling in deep space. The electric sail is a Finnish invention which uses the solar wind as its thrust source and therefore needs no fuel or propellant. The solar wind is a continuous plasma stream emanating from the Sun. Changes in the properties of the solar wind cause auroral brightening and magnetic storms, among other things.

Progress without problems

Over its two-year history, the electric sail has developed rapidly from invention towards implementation and has aroused much international interest. The main parts of the device are long metallic tethers and a solar-powered electron gun which keeps the tethers positively charged. The solar wind exerts a small but continuous thrust on the tethers and the spacecraft. The electric sail and its applications have been developed mainly at the Finnish Meteorological Institute, but component work is carried out at the University of Helsinki and in Germany, Sweden, Russia and Italy.

“We haven't encountered major problems in any of the technical fields thus far. This has already enabled us to start planning the first test mission,” says Dr. Pekka Janhunen. An important subgoal was reached when the Electronics Research Laboratory of the University of Helsinki managed to develop a method for constructing a multiline micrometeoroid-resistant tether out of very thin metal wires using ultrasonic welding. The newly developed technique allows the bonding together of thin metal wires in any geometry; thus, the method might also have spinoff applications outside the electric sail.

Potential important applications of the electric sail

If and when realised, the electric sail could enable faster and cheaper Solar System science and exploration. It might also enable economic utilisation of asteroid resources for, e.g. producing rocket fuel in orbit.

“The electric sail might lower the cost of all space activities and thereby, for example, help making large solar power satellites a viable option for clean electricity production. Solar power satellites orbiting in the permanent sunshine of space could transmit electric power to Earth by microwaves without interruptions. Continuous power would be a major benefit compared to, e.g. ground-based solar power where storing the energy over night, cloudy weather and winter are tricky issues, especially here in the far North,” says Dr. Pekka Janhunen.

The electric sail was invented as a by-product of basic research done at the Finnish Meteorological Institute on the interaction of the solar wind with planets and their atmospheres. Work on the electric sail in Finland is currently funded by the Academy of Finland and private foundations.

The first international electric sail meeting will be arranged at ESA ESTEC in Noordwijk, The Netherlands on May 19, 2008.

Eija Vallinheimo | alfa
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