Posted by Louis D. Friedman
2007/11/16 11:00 CST
“We have lingered long enough on the shores of
the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for
the stars.” —Carl Sagan
A letter from the Executive Director
Dear Members and Supporters,
When my friend Carl Sagan wrote those deeply moving words years ago, his poetic aspirations for humanity could just as well have been the mission statement for The Planetary Society that we, with Bruce Murray, former Director of JPL, co-founded.
Now, you and I have the chance to transform Carl’s eloquent words into concrete reality—the reality of Cosmos 2—where once again, we’ll reach into space with a Solar Sail mission. The potential impact on future space travel is enormous.
It’s no exaggeration to say this is history in the making.
If all goes as planned—and if we have the support of every Planetary Society member—Cosmos 2 will fly to demonstrate the extraordinary concept of “sailing with light.”
This technique of sailing, driven by the direct pressure of light particles, is the only known technology capable of sending a spacecraft on an interstellar journey, to “set sail for the stars.”
The technical challenge is enormous, and it’s not the only challenge we have to meet—no other citizens’ space group has ever tried its own mission. This private venture is audacious—even with the outstanding international team we have. The barriers are huge—but we may have just overcome the biggest obsticle to solar sail flight, the one that has stymied all the world’s space agencies (and foiled our first attempt)— an affordable, reliable launch.
That’s why I’m writing this urgent letter to you today:
- to brief you on the fantastic developments that have put our Solar Sail back on track,
- to explain the obstacles we still face, and how we can overcome them, and
- to ask you to personally join this amazing project.
You see, through the unflagging efforts of Cosmos Studios—our longtime partner in this effort—we recently received a fantastic $250,000 “jump-start” grant from The Discovery Channel, which has also committed to broadcasting a program about the project. It’s an incredible sign of their confidence in The Society. The personal effort of Cosmos Studios’ CEO Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan’s wife and collaborator, whose devotion to this project has been incredible, led to this break through grant.
But now it really puts us under the gun! We need to reciprocate by meeting their challenge head-on and dollar-for-dollar, in effect doubling the power of everything our loyal members give.
Help us with what is arguably among the most important space missions ever, by taking a moment right now to make a generous, special contribution to The Planetary Society.
Your gift will go straight to core operations on the project, including a new launch vehicle and providing a design to interface with it. The new design will use all the experience and components we developed on Cosmos 1, but with a simpler design. To seize these options, we must act now. That’s why I hope you’ll reach into your pocket as deeply as possible to assist us at this critical moment.
If we don’t hurry, we lose our engineering team and our new launch vehicle options. But to explain why, I need to tell you more about the mission and its history.
As you probably know, our first effort—Cosmos 1—was lost on June 21, 2005 when the Volna booster rocket (a converted ICBM) failed to complete its scheduled burn. The revolutionary technology of the solar sail never reached orbit or got its chance to deploy.
Space exploration is inherently risky. The launch vehicle stopped the show for us, as it has for many.
On a shoestring budget, we had to make tough choices. We’ve learned a lot from the first Cosmos, and are poised for a vastly more reliable launch.
This time, we’re going to use one of the most experienced and consistent rockets in the world today: the Russian Soyuz. It’s the very same rocket that has been regularly ferrying astronauts and cosmonauts to the International Space Station for years. In fact, the Soyuz (coupled with the Fregat Upper Stage) was just recently used to carry the European planetary missions— Mars Express and Venus Express—into deep space.
How can we use this fantastic vehicle? We can hitch a ride on a planned Soyuz Fregat mission, piggybacking on a launch of a much larger and more expensive mission. No one else but The Planetary Society could make such an arrangement.
I believe no one else but our members could enable us to do it so fast.
Of course, Cosmos 2 can’t be identical to our first effort, if for no other reason than because it must fit in a different-shaped cargo hold. Plus, we’ve been considering a number of changes to streamline and upgrade the craft, and its all-important camera to take images of the sail and the Earth.
The new launch vehicle means that we can make the spacecraft smaller and simpler, while retaining the same performance. And by keeping the same subsystems, components and instruments, we avoid the need to run extensive new reliability tests. We are, after all, confident about our original Cosmos 1 design.
That alone saves us more than a year of development.
It get’s us one year closer to proving the power of solar sailing.
At the most fundamental level, solar sailing is a concept that is profoundly promising—and just plain exciting—literally flying by sunlight.
In the vacuum of space, with neither gravity nor air friction to deal with, a craft can be affected by even the smallest force.
And that’s exactly what the solar pressure does: it provides a vanishingly small—yet utterly relentless— pressure against the enormous, mirror-like sails designed to harness this energy, exactly as canvas sails on oceangoing ships once did. Eventually, over sufficient time and distance, it can drive a spacecraft to enormous speeds, fast enough to cross the inconceivably vast distances between stars.
Solar sailing is the only practical technology capable of interstellar flight. Of course, we’d have to augment such flights with space-based lasers to substitute for sunlight over interstellar distances. Not easy. But not the province of fantasy, either.
Unlike virtually every other technology we can even imagine, all the things necessary for solar sailing already exist—mostly in off-the-shelf form. For example, the technology for the large, gossamer-like sails is ready to go right now.
And yet, not a single space agency on the planet has been willing to take the first step to actually demonstrate the technology.
Not for want of interest, I can assure you.
Scientists and engineers at every single space organization worldwide would give their right arms for a chance to work on a solar sail mission. But tight budgets and bureaucratic disinterest at higher levels have meant that little has been accomplished at NASA, in Europe, or in Russia, China or Japan. They all have technology programs—spending many millions more than our private effort—but none have a flight plan.
Even as they’ve failed to act, the Society has forged ahead. We’ve believed all along that what’s needed is a real-world demonstration of a solar-driven craft.
Get that, and the world’s spacefaring nations will begin giving solar sailing new respect. Over time, it will gradually appear in mission plans, then in launch schedules, and finally, it’ll be employed in probes heading out into the depths of space.
And it all starts with Cosmos.
Which brings me back to what I said a minute ago. We are at a critical moment in this program.
I think you can now see why this is true: if we want to keep our spacecraft team together and if we want to get commitments from the Soyuz-Fregat launch vehicle industry, and if want to keep open the possibility of launch in the next couple of years, we have to accomplish a tremendous amount of work in the coming months.
We still need:
- new reflective sails (and their extending supports)
- pressure tanks for the sail deployment system
- a new solar cell array
- improved imaging systems
We also have to raise a terrific amount of money. We will need to raise approximately $4.1 million for Cosmos 2. Now that may seem like a big number—and it is a big number—but compare that with what any governmental space agency on Earth, such as NASA, would require: $100 million or more.
Truth is, only an organization as adept as The Society can make such economies possible.
This huge financial need is not beyond us. I have already mentioned our loyal partner in this venture, Cosmos Studios, and Ann Druyan’s personal efforts. The Discovery Channel is on board.
We’re also looking for additional partners—foundations, or corporate co-sponsors. We need loyal members like you, who understand the value of this amazing project, to keep it alive, and help us take advantage of the jump-start.
Discovery’s grant is striking evidence that we will succeed. We must step up and meet their challenges.
In the meantime, we’re forging ahead. The average person might not understand what it really takes to carry out missions to space. But people like you and our other members are keenly aware of the complexity of such an ambitious undertaking.
I’m sure you can appreciate that we must not lose the terrific team of scientists and engineers we’ve assembled for the Cosmos 2 project.
Simply put, these specialists can’t be stored away for future use. If we can’t keep them at work on the program, they simply have to move on—accepting other contracts, getting involved in other multi-year projects. If that happens, our experts could be lost forever.
We’d have to assemble a new team from scratch, causing yet more extensive delays.
So that’s where we stand.
We’ve got our new Cosmos 2 planned out in terrific detail, including a solution to our biggest problem: how to get it boosted into space. We’ve got a window of opportunity to ride along on a planned Soyuz Fregat mission that will put our spacecraft exactly where it needs to be.
So we have a chance to make history as never before. A chance to demonstrate a long-imagined but never-before-tried space technology that could literally open the stars to us.
I can’t tell you how thrilled we all are here at Society headquarters about this. I know that our partners at Cosmos Studios are equally thrilled.
There’s also one more thing we absolutely have to have right now: your support.
I am convinced we can make Cosmos 2 into reality—but only with the enthusiastic backing of our members.
That’s why I’m asking you right now to join with other loyal members of The Planetary Society and help us with an urgent, substantial contribution. Give a gift that will make a big difference—so that we can carry this project through to success.
You know, when Carl Sagan said that it’s time for humanity to “set sail to the stars,” he was really just giving voice to a dream that tens of millions of people have quietly harbored. A dream to go to places where no one had been before, to see things no human could have ever entirely imagined.
The Solar Sail project could prove to be the first step toward realistically traveling to the stars.
Will you help us take it on? Please let me know your answer right away.
Dr. Louis D. Friedman
P.S. The Russians need to know for sure if we’ll be on board the Soyuz Fregat mission. So time truly is of the essence. Please send your most generous gift today. Thanks!