We’re sure the people in that picture above must have had sweaty hands as they unfurled a huge solar sail in front of the camera. What you’re seeing there is a crucial ground test in which a quarter of Sunjammer — the largest solar sail ever expected to fly — was unfurled under Earth gravity conditions Monday (Sept. 30).
Sunjammer is expected to launch in January 2015, a slight delay from an earlier projection of November 2014. This test took place under even tougher conditions than the sail will face in space, as there will be no atmosphere and it will be operating in microgravity, officials said.
According to the team (which included prime contractor L’Garde Inc., NASA and Space Services Inc.), everything went well.
“If this test succeeded under these stressing conditions, we certainly anticipate it will work exceedingly well in space,” stated Nathan Barnes, L’Garde president.
Solar sails could one day be an alternative to conventional propellant-based spacecraft, providing that the spacecraft roam close enough to the sun to receive photonic pressure to do their maneuvers. There have been decades of development on the ground, but the first solar sail test took place in 2010 when Japan unfurled its IKAROS solar sail successfully.
Sunjammer, which would be NASA’s first solar sail in space, will look at solar activity. You can read more about the mission on its official website.