Space Exploration/Solar Sails

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Question
Hi Mr Whiting
Iím a student in grade 12 in Australia and I am currently trying to answer my question which is ĎAre solar sails a viable form of space travel?í If you have an understanding of this topic, could you please provide me with an insight into the benefits and disadvantages of using solar sails as propulsion for space craft? I am also interested in the actual construction and operation of the craft. In addition, I have a basic understanding of the momentum transfer from photons onto the sail but if there is any scientific information you could provide on the operation of solar sails it would be greatly appreciated.
What is the current status on the use of solar sails? Is it still experimental or has is moved past that stage?
Thank you

Answer
Solar sails are an interesting form of propulsion... it's basically free energy.  I believe the USA has orbited, or getting ready to orbit, a test satellite using a solar sail.  Of course, this is just an intermediate method of propulsion, kind of a make-shift idea, in between chemical rockets and advanced ion-drive engines.  And eventually anti-matter drives (a.k.a - Startrek starships)...  and just awaiting the ULTIMATE drive units using either gravitational and/or magnetic energy. And very very far out on the horizon is... Dark Energy propulsion systems.  All of these propulsion systems will easily replace solar sails in the distant future, just as the internal combusion engine power replaced 18th century brigs and
schooners on the ocean surface.  IMHO.
Clear Skies,
Tom Whiting
Erie, PA USA

Space Exploration

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Tom Whiting

Expertise

I can answer most questions about space flight and planetary exploration from an astronomy standpoint, but not from a computer or electronics standpoint. No astrology questions please, or questions about alleged UFO identifications.

Experience

Astronomy, my main catagory, has been my hobby and pastime for over 50 years. Taught astronomy and meteorology at the University level for over 13 years.

Organizations
President- Erie County Mobile Observers Group for over 15 years. Also on allexperts.com astronomy catagory for over 8 years.

Publications
Astronomy Technology Today and also wrote the "Over Erie Skies" column in our local newspaper for 11 years.

Education/Credentials
BS Metallurgical Engineering Grove City College, PA Master's Degree, Gannon University, Erie, PA Also retired USAF pilot, 20 years.

Awards and Honors
Discoverer of the mini-coathanger asterism in Ursa Minor; also the mini-dipper asterism up in the bowl of the Little Dipper.

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