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Wednesday, 28 December 2016

The Universe in 101 words: How does a lightsail drive work?

Are you looking for a  gift with a difference? How about art by a mad scientist?
 
Above: Japan's IKAROS light sail spacecraft, photographed by one of the tiny survey satellites released from it after the sail deployed.
You can’t feel it, but light exerts a push on anything it reflects from - so tiny that, on Earth, it's overwhelmed by even the slightest breeze. 

Not so in space: A spaceship can catch sunlight's push using a large reflective sail. Although slow to accelerate*, eventually it can build immense speeds - probes like JAXA's IKAROS use them today. 

The idea might do a lot more: A super-lightweight sail, boosted by powerful lasers, could reach the nearest stars. The laser would be invisible in space… but the sail would shine like a flare, before fading as it accelerated away… 

*So Jeremy Clarkson would not approve, but balls to him.

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Above A artists impression of sunset over Proxima Centauri B, the nearest exoplanet to Earth.

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