Louis D. FriedmanOct 20, 2006

Update: Monitoring the Weather?

The bigger the dream, the harder it is to achieve it. Our dream at The Planetary Society is to fly the first solar sail mission -- and prove the technology that might someday take humanity to the stars.

With our original partner, Cosmos Studios, we have been "thinking out of the box" to find new ways to fully fund our project. We are investigating the possibility of a commercial venture, where a solar sail would conduct station-keeping at points in interplanetary space that are useful for monitoring in the solar system.

The probable first application for this technology would be to monitor the Sun and give advance warning of dangerous or disruptive solar weather to those who operate satellites or power and communications grids. Charged particles streaming from the Sun can interact with the Earth's radiation belts and the ionosphere, disrupting radio and interfering with power transmissions. Orbiting satellites can be particularly vulnerable to radiation blasts from the Sun.

We commissioned a venture capital firm to investigate the field of solar weather satellites. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has also funded studies to look at commercialization of solar weather satellites. NOAA operates the ACE (Advanced Composition Explorer) satellite, to supply solar weather data. When ACE, which is nearing the end of its lifetime, finally fails, there might not be a ready replacement —no more early warnings of inclement solar weather.

A solar-sail driven spacecraft, parked at the Lagrangian L1 point between Earth and the Sun, might be the perfect mission, and answer, to this crucial dilemma. This Lagrange point is a place in space where the Earth's and the Sun's gravity roughly balance to provide a point of near-equilibrium where a spacecraft can maintain its position while expending almost no energy.

Meanwhile, NASA is considering a Centennial Challenge prize to demonstrate solar sailing for a mission to the L1 point. The Centennial Challenges program at NASA provides incentives for private investment in technologies that advance the readiness of missions of interest to the government. Solar weather monitoring is such a mission.

Because of the interest in L1 missions we are studying, with our Russian Cosmos 1 partners, the applicability of our spacecraft design for a mission that would escape Earth and travel to L1. Some aspects of such a mission might actually be easier than trying to fly a solar sail in low-Earth orbit, but others are harder. We will keep you posted on our progress.

Thus far, we have not found sufficient private interests willing to invest in a commercial venture. Most expect the data to continue to be supplied by governments. In addition to NASA and NOAA in the U.S., the Department of Defense is interested in solar weather monitoring. China is also planning their own solar weather satellite. The Planetary Society will continue to seek private sponsorship, whether for glory, for commercial applicability, or -- as our Members and our partners at Cosmos Studios believe -- for a great story to tell the world.

NASA's own solar sail program has had its own share of problems. The current NASA budget cuts it back severely -- it is part of the science program The Planetary Society is fighting to restore in our S.O.S. Campaign. At the same time, a NASA group has formed a proposal team to compete for the New Millennium Space Technology mission selection. If they win, a solar sail mission could be developed for a 2010-2011 launch. They have asked The Planetary Society to join the team, both to provide cameras for the spacecraft and to be an educational partner on the project. Mission selection is expected before the end of December, 2006.

We continue to pursue the dream of flight by light. Funding, not technology for solar sailing, remains our largest hurdle. Our members, through their donations, are keeping the project alive while we seek a major media or corporate sponsor -- or a visionary individual. And, while we continue to think "out of the box" for the possible commercial venture as well.

We never said it would be easy to take the first step toward the stars. We continue to try.

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