Now this is a charming idea, and maybe a handy one too – fleets of solar sails delivering pictures of distant worlds back to the home planet.
Data is a valuable commodity in the Information Age, just as spices and silk were in centuries past. So Joel Poncy and his team at Thales Alenia Space have imagined clipper ships cruising the solar system, loaded to the gunwales with...data.
In a paper presented at the recent European Planetary Science Congress (here's a PDF version), Poncy et al. conceive of a solar-sailing data clipper that would fly close to an orbiter circling a distant planet, upload its data, then return to Earth to dump the stored terabytes. “Space-rated flash memories will soon be able to store the huge quantities of data needed for the global mapping of planetary bodies in high resolution," said Poncy in a press release. "But a full high-res map of, say, Europa or Titan, would take several decades to download from a traditional orbiter, even using very large antennae. Downloading data is the major design driver for interplanetary missions. We think that data clippers would be a very efficient way of overcoming this bottleneck.”
And it may be a concept whose technological time has come. After years of speculation and aborted launch attempts, one solar sail, Japan's IKAROS, is already flying, and another, NASA's NanoSail-D, is scheduled for launch on November 19 from Alaska. An identical NanoSail was destroyed on the failed launch of the third Falcon 1 rocket in 2008. This time a Minotaur IV will provide the ride.