Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education

Front Page



UK Politics







Talking Point

In Depth

On Air

Low Graphics

Tuesday, August 24, 1999 Published at 14:02 GMT 15:02 UK


Fastest spacecraft will sail solar wind

The solar wind will flow round the spacecraft, pushing it forward

A new type of spacecraft could become the fastest man-made object ever, enabling exploration beyond the Solar System and even to other stars.

The spacecraft creates a 60 km wide magnetic field behind it. It then pumps ionised gas, known as a plasma, into this magnetic bubble.

The interaction of the plasma with the charged particles carried by the solar wind propels the spaceraft forwards.

The magnetic bubble effectively acts as a sail trapping the solar wind. Scientists calculate that speeds of 288,000 km/h (180,000 mph) will be possible - 10 times faster than the space shuttle.

Faster and lighter

Nasa has awarded Professor Robert Winglee and his team at the University of Washington $500,000 (£330,000) to develop their Mini-Magnetospheric Plasma Propulsion system (M2P2).

[ image: Voyager has pushed the limits of human space exploration]
Voyager has pushed the limits of human space exploration
"We can go faster and lighter than anyone else," said Professor Winglee.

The solar wind is made up of charged particles travelling at one million mph. An electric coil, or solenoid, the size of a jam jar will generate a magnetic field 1000 times stronger than the Earth's.

This field would contain a bubble of plasma 30 to 60 kilometres across (18 to 36 miles). Plasma injected into the field would interact with the solar wind's particles to propel the spacecraft forward.

High speed

Previous ideas for harnessing the solar wind include using huge folding sails - but these have the big disadvantage of being relatively heavy. M2P2 could power a vehicle for three months using only three kilograms of helium fuel.

Although the force propelling the space craft would be small - about one Newton, or a quarter of a pound - this would act constantly on the vehicle, accelerating it to its extremely high final speed.

If launched in 2003, M2P2 would reach the outer limits of the solar system before Voyager One, currently the most distant man-made object. Voyager One was launched in 1977 and has a 11-billion-kilometre (6.8-billion-mile) head start, but M2P2 could overtake it in 2013.

For inter-stellar missions, the thrust could be increased further by adding dust particles to the magnetic bubble, said Professor Winglee.

Advanced options | Search tips

Back to top | BBC News Home | BBC Homepage | ©

Sci/Tech Contents

Relevant Stories

27 Jul 99 | Sci/Tech
Tiny probe set for close encounter

30 Sep 98 | Sci/Tech
Rollercoaster ride into space

Internet Links

M2P2 homepage

Voyager Project

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites.

In this section

World's smallest transistor

Scientists join forces to study Arctic ozone

Mathematicians crack big puzzle

From Business
The growing threat of internet fraud

Who watches the pilots?

From Health
Cold 'cure' comes one step closer