New dawn for space travel as revolutionary Cosmos 1 prepares to unfurl her sails

When 17th-century astronomers first dreamed of sending a craft into space they imagined a floating structure with sails. Now, some four centuries later, that image may be about to take shape.

When 17th-century astronomers first dreamed of sending a craft into space they imagined a floating structure with sails. Now, some four centuries later, that image may be about to take shape.

When Cosmos 1 is launched on Tuesday, on an intercontinental ballistic missile fired from a Russian submarine, it will herald a new dawn in space travel. As it reaches orbit, eight triangular sails, each 15 metres long and arranged in a windmill pattern, will unfurl, and the world's first "solar sail" will take place.

Scientists believe the new technology could replace rocket-fuelled missions and carry a spacecraft out of our solar system for the first time. Solar sails, as the name suggests, harness the power of the sun. Instead of catching the wind, the sails catch photons of light which bounce off them.

Each photon gives the sails a tiny push, which slowly increases in speed, initially up to 100 miles per hour but ultimately it is possible for the craft to reach a speed of 10,000 miles per hour. The solar sails eliminate the need for fuel and drastically reduce the ship's weight.

The further the sails get from the sun, the less effective they are. But in future it could be possible to propel the sails using laser beams propelled from satellites, or even placed on Earth.

Peter Bond, of the Royal Astronomical Society, said solar sails had several advantages over traditional rockets. "The potential is quite dramatic," he said. "Chemical propulsion is very heavy, it can blow up, and there is a problem of pollution. This is much lighter, cheaper and easier to use. In theory, you could send it out of the solar system into another star system."

The world's fastest spacecraft, Voyager 1, would take 70,000 years to reach Alpha Centauri - the closest star after the sun. Scientists hope solar sails could transport a spacecraft to another star within 1,000 years.

This is the first time that anyone has tried to put solar sails into orbit. The Japanese successfully unfurled two solar sails in 2004, but did not send them into orbit. The Cosmos 1 project is privately funded. It has been organised by the Planetary Society, whose co-founder, the late astronomer Carl Sagan, came up with the idea.

The project's director, Louis Friedman, a former Nasa scientist, said he believed that Nasa and the European Space Agency (ESA) would launch their own solar sail spacecraft "within this decade".

"This is an exciting possibility for future solar system travel," he said. "It is the only technology we know that leads to interstellar flight. All the major space agencies have programmes, but no flights yet. This will spur them on."

Space exploration has experienced something of a revival over the past few years, as Nasa and the ESA attempt to recreate the fervour that surrounded the first space missions in the 1950s and 1960s. Much of the focus has been on Mars, where the Nasa robot, Rover, is still exploring the surface of the Red Planet after landing there in 2004.

Britain's effort ended in glorious failure at Christmas 2003 when scientists at the base in Milton Keynes were unable to make contact with their probe, Beagle 2. President Bush last year said he hoped the US would one day be able to send a manned mission to Mars.

The use of solar sail technology could allow astronomers to set their sights further than the Red Planet, or indeed any planet in this solar system. Mr Bond said solar sails could lead to a new level in space exploration.

"It could be a historic development. A lot of space agencies have been thinking of it. It just needs somebody to kick-start it. We have been using rockets for 50 years. It is time we started trying something different. This could be one of the ways to do it. I hope it works."

Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind-the-scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
News
Winchester College Football (universally known as Winkies) is designed to make athletic skill all but irrelevant
Life...arcane public school games explained
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
News
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
News
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
News
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
people
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Life and Style
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# Algo-Developer (BDD/TDD, ASP.NET, JavaScript, RX)

£45000 - £69999 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Algo-Develo...

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, Apache Mahout, Python,R,AI)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Data Scientist (SQL,Data mining, data modelling, PHD, AI)

£50000 - £80000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Data Sci...

Java Developer - 1 year contract

£350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Cent...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone