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Emily LakdawallaJune 15, 2005

The buzz begins!

Yesterday, we sent out an invitation to print, TV, and Web media for the launch event we'll be holding at our Pasadena headquarters on Tuesday. So today, the buzz really began about our mission, and the phones are beginning to ring off the hook.

It can be a slighly distracting environment but mostly it's exciting. After all, two of the biggest goals of this mission, for us, are creating a buzz about solar sailing, and creating a buzz about how diverse entities can cooperate to do something innovative and inspirational in space exploration. Just look at the list: there's a nongovernmental organization (us), a private company (Cosmos Studios), foreign space agencies and organizations (Lavochkin and IKI, Makeev and the Russian Navy), domestic agencies (NASA, NOAA, and the University of California - Berkeley), and thousands of other friends and well-wishers (members, donors, and volunteers, both individuals and institutions) involved in making this mission happen.

Inevitably, today, I had to give my first phone interview as a spokesperson for The Planetary Society. It was a little frightening at the outset, since this is the first time I've had such a central role in the real live operations of a space mission. I'm a planetary geologist by training, not an engineer. Fortunately for me, though, most press are not likely to ask me for a physics lesson on solar sailing. What they want to know is, what are we doing, in terms an interested teenager could understand, and more importantly, why? And being in a position to answer those kinds of questions is the reason I left the graduate school track that would have made me a research scientist. I have a passion for learning about space science, so I'll always follow what's going on in research, but overriding that is my passion for explaining space science to the general public.

So what are we doing? We are launching a privately funded spacecraft, using a converted Russian intercontinental ballistic missile, into Earth orbit. Once in Earth orbit, Cosmos 1 will unfurl a set of eight delicate sails made of ultra-thin mylar, the same stuff (only thinner) that metallic balloons are made of. At 30 meters (100 feet) in diameter Cosmos 1 will be among the largest objects ever sent into Earth orbit, though it weighs in at only 103 kilograms (227 pounds). Uncountable trillions of photons, the particles that carry sunlight energy, will bounce off of our reflective sails, each bounce imparting a tiny push to the spacecraft. Slowly, gently, those tiny pushes will increase the speed of our spacecraft. Over time, that increased speed will mean an increased orbit altitude, which we'll be able to detect from the ground. Japan and Russia have both deployed reflective material in space before, but nobody has actually used the principle of solar sailing to change a spacecraft's path, and that's what we're trying to do.

Why are we doing it? Solar sailing has an incredible amount of promise for the exploration of space, but nobody seemed to be pursuing it seriously until The Planetary Society stepped in. Solar sailing has several near-future potential uses, like boosting the energy of orbits, traveling among the planets, and hovering in high-latitude geosynchronous orbits. But what's really exciting about solar sailing is its potential, someday, to carry a spacecraft from Earth to another star. The technology is definitely not there yet, and it may not be for decades, or even in this century. But solar sailing could eventually give us our first glimpse of an alien star system, maybe even a whole new set of planets.

That's just my two cents. There's a whole lot more stuff about what we're doing and why we're doing it and how you can participate in it at the main Solar Sail website.

That's pretty much it for today. But I have to mention that it wasn't just media interest that set our phones vibrating today. I was sitting in a meeting in the POP room at 1:53 this afternoon when the whole building started vibrating. It was a little earthquake that shimmied us for a good four or five seconds. Like I said earlier, I'm a geologist by training, so I have a healthy understanding of what earthquakes are, which means that as the building is shaking half of my mind is concentrating on locating the nearest doorway to shelter in, and half of my mind is analyzing the ground motion. Anyway, once the shaking was over and we'd calmed down, we all had a good laugh at Lou, because of what he'd said yesterday (read yesterday's entry to see what I'm talking about).

When you feel little earthquakes, it gives you a sick feeling because you don't know right away whether it was a small, local event, with nobody harmed, or a huge, distant event, bringing massive destruction. I immediately visited my favorite earthquake website (see the map and link above right) and checked out the recent earthquakes. It was a magnitude 5 event, big enough to scare you, but not big enough to shake down buildings. So, if that was our natural disaster for the mission, it wasn't a bad one. Knock on wood!

Read more: Planetary Society Projects, mission status, solar sailing, LightSail

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Emily Lakdawalla

Senior Editor and Planetary Evangelist for The Planetary Society
Read more articles by Emily Lakdawalla

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