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Space missions to the sun and inner solar system could be powered by solar sail within a decade, Californian researchers claim.

Solar sails - thin sheets of material that use photons from the sun to propel craft through space - have been the stuff of science fiction for decades. Now scientists at ATK Space Systems are putting their sail cloth to the test in the world's largest vacuum chamber at NASA's Glenn Research Centre, Wired News reports.

The space simulation chamber is 122ft high and 100ft in diameter. It has been used to test radiators for the International Space Station, rocket components, and the inflatable landing bags used by NASA to protect the Spirit and Opportunity rovers on their way to the surface of Mars.

The plastic-like, reflective cloth, which is 100 times thinner than a sheet of paper, is a spin-off from technology used to develop paint for spacecraft. The researchers need to test the material in a vacuum to see how it might perform in space, so they stretch triangular sheets of the cloth over four booms that form a square, and pump all the air out. Then they see how the sails deploy and move around in different temperatures.

Eventually, the researchers say, it could be used to fly science packages direct to the Sun or other planets, without having to swing around other bodies several times to get an acceleration boost from the gravity-slingshot effect. Although the acceleration from the solar sail would be low, it would be maintained constantly, so a craft could eventually get up a reasonable velocity.

Initial flights in space are likely to use sails 130 feet across on each side of a craft. The speed and direction would be controlled by shaping the sails or changing their angle to the sun, much as with a yacht or a dingy, though if you fall out, it's a lot further to swim to the shore, of course. ®

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