The basis of the technology isn't new, after all we've been sailing the waters of our planet for millennia, but the launch of the Cosmos 1 spacecraft later this year will represent humankind's first attempt to sail through space. The privately funded joint project between the Planetary Society and Cosmos Studios is aimed at opening up the future of planetary flight and the possibility of interstellar journeys where powerful space lasers instead of solar photons would be used to drive craft at incredible speeds.
Cosmos 1 is made up of eight triangular blades creating a sail area of 600 square meters that work like a mirror to reflect photon particles within light and create forward momentum for the spacecraft.
The Cosmos 1 project began in September 15, 2000 with the spacecraft is being built in Russia by the Babakin Space Center. In August this year the solar sail blade was successfully tested in flight configuration in a vacuum chamber and the orbital demonstration flight later this year will see the 100 kg spacecraft injected into a near circular 800 km orbit carrying two cameras mounted above the sail that will send mission telemetry to ground stations near Moscow. The spacecraft will launch from a Russian submarine on a Volna rocket and depending on its location in the sky, Cosmos 1 will be visible from Earth once in orbit, and though small, may appear as bright as the full Moon.
The concept of Space Sailing itself is not a recent one - Jules Verne is thought to have been the first to recognize the concept in 1865, although this quote from Johannes Kepler (circa. 1610) when observing a comets tail suggests that the idea is even older:
"Provide ships or sails adapted to the heavenly breezes, and there will be some who will brave even that void."