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  • Small Nation, Big Idea
    Posted by Frank Morring, Jr. 7:43 AM on Oct 04, 2011

    Cape Town, South Africa -- Almost 80 nations are represented here at the 62nd International Congress, including all the usual suspects.

    NASA has 50 representatives and a large display devoted to past glories and tentative future plans. Russia's past and present agency heads are present, along with senior cosmonaut Valery Ryumin, who has spent time on Salyut and Mir and flown in the space shuttle. Europe's major space powers are well-represented in the exhibition hall, both by space agencies and companies looking for a piece of the emerging African market.

    At the other end of the spectrum is tiny Finland. Its sole official representative is Mikko Suominen, a journalist who writes for the science magazine Tähdet ja avaruus (Stars and Space). Suominen represents the Finnish Astronautical Society and is also a member of the  Astronomical Association Ursa. He arrived here with a large cardboard tube carrying his nation's contribution to the annual international discussion of the hows, whys and wheres of space travel -- a poster presentation on a concept advanced by Pekka Janhunen of the Finnish Meteorological Institute.

    blog post photo

    Dubbed the E-Sail, for Electric Solar Wind Sail, the idea would be to add the electrical charge of the solar wind to its photon pressure for propulsion. Long tethers would gather a positive charge from the solar wind that would  be repelled by the same charge in the wind itself. Janhunen and his colleagues say that the technology could speed a 500-kg. payload to Neptune  in only 4.6 years, enabling detailed study of the outer solar system for clues to the formation of the planets from the early solar disk. Suominen says it could also be used to move threatening asteroids out of Earth's path.

    An added benefit of the technology is the ability to control the direction of travel by changing the charge on one side of the sail.

    Suominen says the University of Tartu in Estonia has plans to begin testing the concept in space with a tether extended from a cubesat in low Earth orbit, gauging the ability of the tether to interact with the plasma environment and slow the satellite. That raises another possible application -- deorbiting satellites that have outlived their useful lives.

    Tags: os99, Finland, e-sail, outer-planets, NASA

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