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Solar power to set sail in space

NASA will launch its first solar sail as early as July 29, potentially changing the way space is explored.

On earth, people are beginning to use the sun's light to power their houses, office buildings, and even gadgets. Now, outside of our planet, the sun's energy is going to be utilized for something else--space travel.

If NASA can successfully implement solar sails, which have been referenced in some sci-fi books of the past, using the sun's energy for space exploration may become a reality this summer.

The NanoSail-D team with the solar sail.
The NanoSail-D team shows off their solar sail, after a deployment test in April. Science@NASA

According to a report by NASA Science, the Marshall Space Flight Center and the Ames Research Center have teamed up to make history, by deploying its first solar sail, the NanoSail-D.

The solar sail, made of aluminum and space-age plastic, has the ability to harness the radiation of the sun for movement. Since outer space is frictionless, the sail could potentially accelerate forever, traveling much faster and much farther than a rocket running on fuel. Travel back to Earth would require a turn of the sail.

This technology isn't the first of its kind. In 2005, The Planetary Society launched a solar sail spacecraft, hoping to be the first successful launch. However, later that day, there was no confirmation that the craft, names Cosmos 1, had entered orbit, and the mission was deemed unsuccessful.

If NASA's spacecraft makes it into orbit, it will unfurl the solar sail from its pod, and "use solar pressure as a primary means of attitude control and orbital maneuvering," said Sandy Montgomery of the Marshall Space Flight Center, housed in Huntsville, Ala.

NASA said it means big things for space travel. According to Montgomery, the speed of the solar sail would make it feasible for a spacecraft to leave our solar system in a decade, instead of the 30 years it took for the Voyager missions to get to the edge of the solar system. In theory, rockets would be used for short missions and sails would be used for longer missions.

The power of the sun has also been used on NASA's recent mission to Mars. The Mars Phoenix Lander gets its energy to explore the planet from two solar panels built into the robot.

The NanoSail-D will travel to space onboard the SpaceX Falcon 1 rocket, launching from the Pacific Ocean as early as July 29. It will be brought on board in a 10-pound suitcase, and if successfully unfurled, it will measure at 100 square feet.

The sails will not harness enough energy to carry passengers in space, but Montgomery said with solar sails at thousands of square feet, "a number of interesting scientific missions are possible."