07 December 2010


NANOSAILING. When I was a lad, back during the Punic Wars, I had the good fortune to become a member of the Boy Scouts. In addition to stellar camping experiences along the Rocky Mountain Front in northern Montana, and earning the usual merit badges for skills or service, each month I received the organization's magazine, Boys' Life. Each issued featured articles on camping, history, physical health, environmental issues, and at least one work of short fiction.

One of the fiction pieces which remains vivid in my memory (and in fact took my breath away at the time) was a story about regattas in near space -- sailing races among craft which, rather than using atmospheric wind for propulsion and direction, used solar wind -- the stream of charged particles emitted from the upper atmosphere of the Sun. In the story, each sailing craft was essentially a person-sized pod attached by long, slender tethers to the edges of huge sails (up to a mile along each edge), made of lightweight material. The notion of sailing in space, riding currents of invisible light, was spellbinding.

Half a century later, reality is catching up with science fiction. In his article Solar Sails Are Already Old Tech -- Get Ready For Solar Wings, Hank Thompson points out that "light has mass and beaming enough light at something can push it away -- solar sails that will move a craft through the cosmos are based on this idea and NASA tested that concept when it launched NanoSail-D2, a nanosatellite (cubesat) which will unfold to a 100 square foot sail and travel in low earth orbit .... But research takes sails a step further and generates actual lift using light. A group of scientists were able to 'lift' their refractive wing-shaped object much like air does with airplanes, using differently shaped top and bottom surfaces .... That isn't solar power as we think of it today, it is actual light particles at work and getting things done directly .... And the lift isn't slight. The lift angles were 60 degrees, a very striking, very powerful lift angle."

All this is still in the R&D phase, but the implications are exciting. The greatest limiting factor in exploring our solar system is precisely propulsion -- our reliance on combustable (sometimes explosive) and very heavy fuels which make up the bulk of any rocket payload. Imagine eliminating rockets altogether with an alternative method of propulsion, one which is both ubiquitous and free -- light from the sun. Using the navigation and control methods of old-time sailing, one could explore the planets or simply enjoy a luxurious space cruise. Or, who knows, compete in a near space regatta. (Please click on images for full magnification -- they are stunning.)

CARTER ON CONGRESS. Former President Jimmy Carter was interviewed by Ray Suarez recently, in connection with the publication of Carter's newest book "White House Diary." The book is a distillation of some 20 volumes, or 5000 pages, of diaries which Carter kept while in office. During events ranging from the Middle East Peace Talks to the Iran Hostage Crisis, Carter observes that in the 1970s and 1980s, the level of cooperation between the Presidency and Congress, and between Republicans and Democrats, was markedly more civil and effective than the highly polarized gridlock of today. Jimmy Carter is perhaps our most under-appreciated President. He minces no words in his assessment of Congress in general and Republicans in particular, whom he characterizes as being "completely irresponsible."

You can view the interview transcript, as well as watch the video of the interview, here. Whatever your political persuasions, you will find substantial food for thought.

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