Published June 20, 2013
Famed science fiction writer Sir Arthur C. Clarke is finally headed for space -- five years after his death.
Though the author of “2001: A Space Odyssey” died in 2008 in Sri Lanka, scientists from NASA today announced plans to send his DNA into orbit around the sun in 2014 aboard the Sunjammer, an astonishing solar-powered spacecraft.
Called the Sunjammer Cosmic Archive (SCA), the flying time capsule is a first in the history of space travel, carrying digital files of human DNA including Clarke’s aboard the sun-powered space ship.
The DNA is to be contained in a “BioFile.” Other so-called MindFiles, including images, music, voice recordings, and the like, provided by people all around the globe, will also be included in the cosmic archive for future generations -- or perhaps other civilizations -- to see.
“Clarke certainly imagined himself going to space someday, and that day is finally arriving,” said Stephen Eisele, vice president of Space Services, Inc., a NASA contractor on the project. The name Sunjammer comes from the writings of Clarke, but the goal is all-encompassing.
"The Sunjammer Cosmic Archive enables all of us to go to outer space," he said.
The archive is one part of an amazing new NASA mission based on a vision outlined by astronomer Johannes Kepler, in a letter to Galileo in 1610: deployment of a technology that harnesses the light of the sun to propel spaceships.
”Provide ships or sails adapted to the heavenly breezes, and there will be some who will brave even that void,” Kepler wrote to Galileo.
In interviews during the days before the Thursday announcement, developers outlined for FoxNews.com the overall scope of the Sunjammer project, which NASA’s mission manager Ron Unger, at the Marshall Space Flight Center, described as a “game changing technology” that could alter mankind’s approach to space travel.
Simply put, the technology is a “solar sail” that gathers light from the sun and turns it into a propulsion source for a spacecraft, Unger said. It seems like something out of Clarke’s sci-fi writings, which is one reason that his DNA, which he left to science upon his death, is the payload for the mission, Eisele said.
This NASA-funded technology demonstration is designed to highlight the efficacy of solar sails for space propulsion applications; it’s now being built by Sunjammer team leader L'Garde, Inc., based in Tustin, Calif.
According to Nathan Barnes, president of L’Garde, the ship will launch in the fall of 2014 on a 1.9-million mile voyage to the sun from Cape Canaveral, Fla.
The diminutive spacecraft -- it’s literally the size of a standard kitchen dishwasher -- will be carried as a secondary spacecraft aboard a Falcon rocket 932,000 miles from Earth, where it will be released into space.
For NASA, Sunjammer will demonstrate deployment and navigation of the solar sail technology at nearly a million miles from Earth. Solar sails, sometimes called light sails or photon sails, are a form of spacecraft propulsion using the radiation pressure of a combination of light and high-speed gasses ejected from the Sun to push large, ultra-thin mirrors to high speeds.
These spacecraft offer NASA the possibility of low-cost operations with lengthy operating lifetimes. They have few moving parts and use no propellant, and they can potentially be used many times for delivery of different payloads.
“Sunjammer will morph -- much like a butterfly - into a Space Shuttle-sized ship capable of maneuvering solely by riding the photonic pressure of the Sun,” Barnes tells FoxNews.com. “Such propellant-less space travel has been the subject of human dreams since at least the time of Galileo, and holds great promise.
Here’s the physics of how it works, in a simplified form: Solar radiation creates a pressure on the sail due to reflection and a small fraction that is absorbed, and this absorbed energy heats the sail, which re-radiates that energy from the front and rear surfaces.
The first formal design of a solar sail was conducted in the 1970s, at the height of Sir Clarke’s fame as a sci-fi writer and futurist, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. A conference on solar sails was held just last month in the U.K., and researchers from NASA, a number of leading British universities, and L’Garde were present, discussing the potential of the Clarke-ian technology.
But now the technology is finally moving toward deployment on a major mission as a result of President Obama’s reorganization of NASA during his first term, and the agency’s search for technologies that can rapidly be commercialized, Eisele told FoxNews.com.
In addition to the payload including the DNA of Sir Clarke, scientific experiments will be conducted, once this craft is in space to demonstrate the use of solar sails in monitoring space weather, for example, which could provide early warnings of potentially dangerous solar storms.
To be sure, Clarke would have approved of that additional mission as well, Eisele told FoxNews.com.