2003 will end a century of flight it began in 1903 at Kitty Hawk and will extend to Mars, when a band of seven spacecraft continue humanity's exploration of the Red Planet. Next year will also see the advent of solar sailing, a technology that could take us to the stars, when The Planetary Society launches its Cosmos 1 mission.
"It's incredible to think that only 100 years ago, Orville and Wilbur Wright demonstrated in 12 seconds that powered flight was more than a possibility. And now we are taking the first step to the stars," said Louis D. Friedman, Executive Director of The Planetary Society. "It is a breathtaking vista."
Cosmos 1, the solar sail project sponsored by The Planetary Society and Cosmos Studios, will literally ride on light, as the sail harnesses the power of photons to orbit the Earth and demonstrate this futuristic technology. Light-powered sails are the only technology known today that could deliver the speed necessary to reach other star systems.
"With Cosmos 1, we have taken the most ambitious step ever for a private space interest organization, and our mission will be a first in the history of flight, " said Friedman.
Mars will be one of the busiest planets in the solar system when it plays host to seven different spacecraft. Five will be en route to arrive by December 2003 or January 2004 -- two Mars Exploration Rovers, Mars Express, Beagle 2 and Nozomi. The Planetary Society will celebrate this extraordinary convergence of missions, January 2-4, 2004, with a large public gathering called PlanetFest in Pasadena, California.
On that same weekend, the Stardust spacecraft will fly through comet Wild 2 and collect samples of its coma (atmosphere) for return to Earth. The comet mission, Deep Impact, is also scheduled to launch that weekend.
Looking beyond our own solar system neighborhood, The Planetary Society will achieve first light on two telescopes -- one new and one refurbished designed specifically to advance the search for extraterrestrial life. An optical SETI telescope will scan the skies from Harvard, Massachusetts, looking for possible artificial light pulses from alien civilizations elsewhere in the galaxy. A refurbished telescope on Kitt Peak in Arizona will search for planets around other stars.
The Planetary Societyís SETI@home program, which harnesses the spare computing power of Internet-connected personal computers around the world, now boasts over four million participants in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
"Searching for extraterrestrial life, and particularly extraterrestrial intelligence, is the epitome of an optimistic society, and we hope our optimism about the future can serve as one small beacon for our world in 2003, " said Friedman.