Setting Sail In The Cosmos

The first spacecraft to fly on sunbeams is set for launch next month

As every ancient mariner knew, traveling by sail is a simple way to go. Though the winds could be fickle and the boats pokey, the energy source that moved the ship was free, plentiful and renewable. Now the same technology that conquered the oceans of Earth may conquer the ocean of space.

This week a Russian and American consortium will announce plans for an April launch of the first so-called solar-sail vehicle, a multimasted spacecraft that will use sunlight to push itself along. To a public raised on smoke-and-fire rocketry, the idea of drawing energy straight from space seems fanciful. To...

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