IN 1969, American astronaut Neil Armstrong said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” as he became the first person to set foot on the Moon. Less than 50 years after, the US’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) is all set to take Armstrong’s proverbial leap as its Heliopause Electrostatic Rapid Transit System Electric Sail—also known as the HERTS E-Sail—project moves closer to reality. The technology will allow the spacecraft, whose design resembles an umbrella’s pattern of spokes, to reach heliopause—the end of our solar system—faster than any other spacecraft launched by NASA.
Voyager 1, launched by Nasa in 1977, took 35 years to reach the end of the solar system and the Voyager 2 is expected to take more, but E-sail, if successful, will take only 10-15 years to reach heliopause, which is at a distance of 121 astronomical units (18 billion km). While the Voyager twins are dependent on nuclear energy which is expected to fizzle out, E-sail’s use of solar winds makes it a propellant-free propulsion system. The spacecraft will rely on its spokes of just 1mm thickness and over-20 km length to repel protons emitted by solar winds traveling at 400-750 kilometer per second. While the technology is still in the testing phase and would take some years to be perfected, E-sail will not just expand the scope of such interstellar missions but also of inter-planetary probe.