A group of students hailing from Estonia are about to do something remarkable. Well, two things really. They are about to launch what will be their nation's first satellite into orbit. (A fantastic milestone in and of itself.) But what the satellite is theoretically capable of doing is just as important.
The small, cube-like satellite — fittingly named ESTCube-1 — aims to sail upon the currents of solar wind in an innovative new way: by electrifying metal tethers. The tethers will electromagnetically interact with solar wind, so instead of just being pushed along by photons which happen to collide with the spacecraft's sail, (as is the case with traditional models), the new design will actually charge itself up and grab hold of them.
What's more, the "electric sail" is entirely scalable. The longer and more numerous the tethers, the faster you can propel your spacecraft. Stick 100 tethers on a mid-sized satellite or probe and you could reach speeds approaching 30 kilometers per second. That's twice as fast as currently active probes like the New Horizons Spacecraft.
As for the ESTCube-1, a single 10-meter long tether which will only be able to make small alterations in the satellite's orientation, will have to do.
Though the launch of the rocket bearing the ESTCube-1 is currently delayed due to inclement weather, the launch should go forward once the passing thunderstorms clear up. At which point we just might get to catch a glimpse of the launch ourselves, as the launch is set to be streamed live. If all goes well with the launch and test of ESTCube-1, another tether-propelled satellite is set to be launched next year — one with a much more impressive 100-meter tether.
Via IEEE Spectrum