Foiling Perils From Outer Space

Huge reflective sails could divert killer asteroids, City Tech scientists say.

NASA engineers inspect a 400-square-meter solar sail (nearly 100 feet on the diagonal) in 2005 at the world's largest space simulator - the agency's Space Power Facility at the John Glenn Research Center. Plum Brook Station, Ohio. Built under contract by L'Garde, Inc., it survived vacuum and intense cold.

This is not science fiction: A 25 million-ton asteroid that's 90 stories tall really is hurtling toward Earth. On Easter Sunday, April 13, 2036, it could smash into our planet somewhere between Kazakhstan and Venezuela. It's named Apophis after the Egyptian god of darkness and the void.

If it plunged into the Pacific, Apophis would spawn tsunamis that could hammer the West Coast with 50-foot waves for an hour or more. If it hit land, it could kill tens of millions of people; NASA says it would strike with 68,000 times the force of the atom bomb that leveled Hiroshima.

By comparison, when a meteor a fifth its size exploded in the air over unpopulated Siberia in 1908, it flattened 80 million trees over 800 square miles (larger than New York's five boroughs and Westchester County, combined). Its shock wave broke windows and knocked people off their feet hundreds of miles away.

Panic spread when Apophis was first spotted in 2004, for the chances of collision initially were put at 1 in 37. NASA's recent calculations now peg the threat at 1 in 45,000 or less.

Heave a sigh of relief but beware of the unknown. When Apophis passes Earth in 2029 and heats as it falls toward the sun, it could calve into smaller pieces or emit a tail, which would act like a rocket and change its direction unpredictably. If Apophis or its fragments enter one of two "keyholes" in space, there could be impact when it returns seven years later.

Apophis - although a wake-up call for planetary security - is almost beside the point. Comets and asteroids have hit Earth before, and a big one most likely triggered the mass extinction that snuffed out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. NASA predicts a 1 in 100 chance that an asteroid at least 140 meters (459 feet) in diameter will smack down within 50 years with enough force to obliterate a state or a coastline. Apophis or some other hunk of rock - the name really doesn't matter, for the threat is equally dire. But it can be averted.

Gregory Matloff, a New York City College of Technology assistant professor of physics and a NASA consultant, favors deflecting asteroids with space-based solar sails. These are sheets of reflective metal less than a tenth the thickness of a human hair. A solar sail 50 meters (164 feet) on a side could travel alongside a large asteroid for a year, continuously focusing the sun's rays on it, burning off part of the surface and creating a jet that could steer the asteroid away.

And, Matloff says, there's no better asteroid to try this on than Apophis, since we know it's coming and have ample time to prepare a mission to divert it.

Solar sails also could keep satellites in position without fuel, power missions across the solar system faster than rockets and provide limitless electricity by converting sunlight to microwaves and transmitting them to Earth.

Matloff, who has theorized about solar sails for more than 30 years, is part of a dynamic team of City Tech physicists who are refining the science behind solar sails in a steady stream of papers and conference presentations.

Together and individually, Matloff and physics professor Roman Kezerashvili have explored possible materials, thicknesses and construction techniques for solar sails.

During the summer, Kezerashvili and assistant professor Justin F. Vázquez-Poritz galvanized the International Academy of Astronautics conference in Aosta, Italy, which focused on missions to the outer solar system and beyond. They described how the Einsteinian curvature of space-time would affect the steering of solar sails.

"Everyone in the room got excited," says Les Johnson, deputy manager of the Advanced Concepts Office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. "They're the first to assess how general relativity might affect close-approach [to the sun] solar sails. With Roman's nuclear physics background and Justin's relativity and string theory background, they're looking at this from the side. They're covering things that those who have worked the field haven't thought about and really need to."

Meanwhile, assistant professor Lufeng Leng, a photonics and fiber optics researcher, joined Matloff in a paper that suggests using the lowest-tech optical device - a lensless pinhole camera - to monitor the health of solar sails after they're deployed. Now, firing up the lasers in her lab, Leng measures the optical properties of meteorite samples, seeking a better understanding of how light interacts with regolith (the loose rocky, icy or dusty surface covering of celestial bodies). This is a first step toward building a more accurate model of how a solar collector could deflect an Earth-threatening asteroid or comet.

This is impressive work for just four members of a 14-person physics department, not to mention a department that is only three years old and from an institution that awards more associate degrees than bachelor's degrees.

"Everyone thinks that City Tech is a teaching institution, not a research institution," says Kezerashvili, the physics department chair. "But as I see it, we're a physics department with excellence in teaching and in research. Our faculty publishes in the most respected journals."


Unlike conventional chemical rockets that roar into space on pillars of fire and smoke and burn an ever-dwindling supply of fuel with each course correction, solar sails require no propellant once unfurled in space. That gives them greater range than any existing rocket without in-flight refueling, which has never been attempted.

Solar sails function like boat sails, but instead of wind, they're driven by photons from the sun. A photon is a unit of light, a particle that lacks mass but packs electromagnetic energy and momentum. When photons hit the sail, they bounce off, transferring their momentum and pushing it.

If sails directly face the sun, ceaseless photon bombardment would continuously accelerate them, speeding them across the solar system and beyond. If sails are angled, they will spiral toward or away from the sun, allowing them to be steered, just as a boat tacks by shifting its sails in relation to the wind.

"Solar sails are the only way we can take the first steps into interstellar space," says NASA's Johnson, who formerly managed interstellar propulsion for the agency and has co-authored two books with Matloff. They also hold a 2003 patent that marries a photon-driven solar sail with an electrodynamic tether system that both generates propulsion to steer the spacecraft and draws power from a planet's magnetic field, which can be used to perform orbital maneuvers.

"We looked at fusion, fission, electric propulsion and more, and what we could build in the near term," Joshson says. "The only two options are solar sails and nuclear fission, and fission is too expensive and complex. Solar sails wouldn't be. You could go further and further out with sails before you hit a technical barrier. They wouldn't get you to a star any time soon - maybe in a thousand years - but they'd get you there."

But what happens to an exquisitely thin sheet of metal as it flies through space, ceaselessly scorched by the sun and cosmic radiation? That's where Kezerashvili, a theoretical physicist, comes in.

While talking with Matloff, Kezerashvili says he realized that "solar radiation not only pushes solar sails, it also destroys the materials from which they're built." He scribbled equations on the blackboard. Matloff said no one else had thought about this, and that led to a series of papers in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society and other journals.

They considered what would happen on a microscopic level to a twin-walled, hydrogen-inflated solar sail made of the metallic element beryllium, with walls 10 to 20 nanometers thick (one nanometer is 3 to 10 atoms wide). Beryllium, while toxic to mine and handle, became their favored material, for it is three times lighter than aluminum and has a high melting point. They investigated how harsh solar radiation could degrade beryllium, affect the sail's structural integrity and allow hydrogen to escape, which would deflate the sail.

"For materials science, all of this is very well known, but from a cosmic point of view, it was something new," Kezerashvili says.

Their other papers looked at topics including sail thickness, the performance of a single-layer sail, the relative merits of different metallic films, and whether it's wise to mitigate the electrostatic pressure that ultraviolet radiation causes when it ionizes the sails, creating a positive charge. (An ionized sail will deflect protons hurled by the solar wind, which transfer their momentum and increase the sail's speed; but too much electrostatic pressure can rupture a hollow-body sail. The trick is finding the right balance of thickness, material and amount of inflation gas.)

Vázquez-Poritz, versed in string theory, brought a different perspective to what he calls "the theoretical playground." (An amalgam of quantum mechanics and general relativity, string theory is the leading candidate for a "theory of everything" that would describe all matter and the interactions of the four fundamental forces: gravitational, electromagnetic, weak and strong.)

Newton said that gravity is the force between two masses, like two molecules or the sun and Earth. Einstein said that objects move in curved trajectories and accelerate not because there's gravitational force but because they follow the curvature of space-time (for as he conceived it, space and time are not different, but a single geometric manifold, and traversing it is like a marble rolling across the curves of a rumpled sheet).

"Newtonian gravity was enough to get man to the moon, but the closer you get to the sun, the stronger the curvature of space-time and the less you can ignore Einstein," Vázquez-Poritz says.

Suppose you want to unfurl a solar sail where it will get the fastest start for a trip across the solar system. Since the force of photons diminishes the farther you get from the sun, just as your perception of a flame's heat lessens the farther away you pull your hand, you'd want to open the sail extremely close to the sun - say at .05 astronomical units (or AU, where one AU is the distance from the sun to the Earth; the first planet, Mercury, orbits at .39 AU).

Why is getting a fast start so important? Consider this: NASA launched Voyager 2 in 1977 to study the heliosphere (the area covered by our sun's solar wind, which starts at 1 million mph), the termination shock (where the solar wind slows below the speed of sound, which is 1 mile in 5 seconds) and the heliosheath (where pressure from the interstellar medium causes the solar wind to form a comet-like tail). It took 30 years for Voyager to reach the heliosheath, some 80 to 100 AU away, and it will take at least as long to reach the 200 AU heliopause (where the solar wind stops).

But, Kezerashvili and Matloff calculated, a solar sail deployed at .05 AU could speed to the heliopause in just 2½ years. In 30 years, it could explore a vast swath of the Oort Cloud - a reservoir of long-period comets and other space debris - that stretches from 1,000 to 50,000 AU away or farther.

"You ask me why do I want to come so close to the sun with a solar sail?" says Kezerashvili. "I want to know what happens beyond the solar system, and if I launch something, I should know the result during my lifetime."

He and Vázquez-Poritz considered Kepler's third law, a mathematical formula conceived in the early 1600s that describes the relationship between the longer orbital periods of planets far from the sun and the shorter orbital periods of planets close to the sun. In two papers, they argue that deviations from Kepler's law occur when the curvature of space-time and solar radiation pressure act simultaneously on a solar sail-propelled satellite. In short, if you open the sail close to the sun and don't account for Einstein, you might miss your target by more than 1 million miles.

"This could be an ideal way to test the effects of general relativity," Vázquez-Poritz says. "With a solar sail, we could measure effects that otherwise would be too small to measure."

He adds that solar sailing could thus become the second technological application of general relativity. The first is the Global Positioning System, which calculates your position by detecting minute differences in timing between signals from different orbiting satellites.


Soon after Kezerashvili and Vázquez-Poritz presented their papers at the International Academy of Astronautics in Italy this summer, Matloff presented one on a different topic that he co-authored with undergraduate Monika Wilga. Call it celestial hitchhiking.

Before humans can travel far from the protection of the Earth's magnetic field, they have to figure out how to shield themselves from potentially lethal cosmic rays. This high-energy, high-mass radiation is a major obstacle to a two- to three-year mission to Mars. Shielding needs to be heavy and launching it from Earth would be expensive – "at $10,000 a pound, you're talking about $50 to $60 billion in launch costs," Matloff says.

But, he wondered, why not hitch a ride on a passing asteroid, much as a hermit crab climbs into an empty seashell?

Wilga, his Astronomy 1 and 2 student two years ago, is now heading into a physics major at Queens College and aims for a master's in astronomy or astrophysics. She searched the Web for known near-Earth objects (NEOs, meaning asteroids and comets) with certain characteristics, including crossing the orbits of Earth and Mars and being in our neighborhood between 2020 and 2100. A few fit the bill.

"There's a trade-off, of course," Matloff says. "A ship must perform more powered maneuvers to rendezvous with the NEO. Also, total flight times for NEO-shielded missions may be a bit longer than for unshielded planetary transfers."

The symposium committee selected all of the City Tech papers for submission to IAA's journal, Acta Astronautica.

This hitchhiking notion flows naturally out of Matloff's work on deflecting threatening asteroids. He favors a two-sail system. Over the course of a year or more, a large parabolic collector sail would reflect sunlight onto a smaller, maneuverable thruster sail that would concentrate an intensely hot beam of light on a point on the asteroid's surface. Just as a child might use a magnifying glass to focus sunlight to set a dried leaf on fire, the thruster would vaporize rock, creating a controllable jet whose velocity would enable scientists to steer the asteroid safely away.

Leng is now in City Tech's photonics lab, conducting experiments aimed at building a mathematical model of how that idea would work. Her research - still at what she calls "a very preliminary stage" - starts with meteorite samples borrowed from the American Museum of Natural History, where Matloff also is a Hayden associate in astrophysics.

Working with undergraduate math major Thinh Le, she directs differently colored laser beams at the samples. Since these 30-micron (.00117-inch) thin meteorite sections are embedded in epoxy glass, she has to account for how much energy the glass reflects and absorbs. "Basically, we measure the light intensity before it hits the sample and measure it again after to get the transmission coefficient," or the amount hitting the meteorite. Working with meteorites of different thicknesses, "we can get a bunch of curves and begin to build up a model."

A crucial question is how far the light penetrates below the surface, for a beam that penetrates too deeply will simply heat the asteroid, while a beam that penetrates just the right amount - perhaps a thousandth of a millimeter - would produce a steerable jet. It all depends on better understanding the penetration depth of electromagnetic radiation (like light) in NEO regolith.

Leng says that if she hadn't joined the City Tech physics department, she might never have ventured into space research. "My past projects are all photonics, fiber optics and communication, so this is very exciting for me and my students. When they hear the word 'space,' wow! It's amazing. They are fascinated by the idea."


Scientists propose several ways to deflect Earth-bound asteroids and so far NASA has not settled on a preferred method, according to Robert B. Adams, who headed the team at the agency's Advanced Concepts office that studied asteroid-deflection methods in 2007. Matloff was their solar sail expert.

"The solar collector is definitely on the table," says Adams. So are ideas including a nuclear explosion away from the asteroid, a kinetic impactor that would ram into it and a gravity tractor, which would hover near the asteroid and use the gravity that naturally occurs between them to pull the asteroid slowly off its course.

"The solar sail hasn't received as much attention, but it's a good application with NEOs because it gives you more control over which way your thrust is generated," Adams says.

He added that it's probably wise to have a number of options available, because, under a 1988 congressional mandate, NASA is cataloging a dizzying number of asteroids and comets that are approaching Earth. Roughly 1,000 are wider than 1 kilometer (.6 mile); an estimated 21,000 are wider than 140 meters (459 feet), big enough to wipe out a coastline.

"We see a lot of asteroids after they've flown by," Adams says. "If they're coming from the inner solar system out, they're difficult to spot because they're coming from the sun. It's unnerving to see one fly by close to us, and we didn't know it existed."

For example, there was only a 21-hour warning before an SUV-size asteroid called 2008TC3 exploded in a 1-kiloton (1,000-ton) fireball high over Sudan's Nubian Desert on Oct. 7, 2008. Within an hour of discovery by astronomer Richard Kowalski at the NASA-sponsored Catalina Sky Survey, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory had predicted the time and location of that "small impact event," one of several that occur each year.

NASA notified agencies ranging from the National Security Council to the Department of State, which alerted Sudan. By the time the asteroid entered the Earth's shadow 19 hours after discovery, 26 observatories worldwide had reported 570 positional measurements. It was the first test of NASA's NEO Program and planetwide cooperation in this area – and it was sheer luck that this asteroid didn't target a populated area, for there would have been scant time to evacuate.


Space resources may prove invaluable in combating climate change and restoring Earth's econological balance, according to a forthcoming book by Johnson and Matloff, Paradise Regained: The Regreening of Earth, which is illustrated by C Bangs.

One much-discussed idea is using kilometers-wide solar sails to collect solar radiation and beam it down to Earth in the form of microwaves. Another idea is positioning a huge sail - or trillions of two-foot-diameter sails - to cast a shadow on Earth, uniformly reducing sunlight across the planet by a fraction in order to negate the heat gain caused by greenhouse gases.

But for the moment, dreams of solar sailing remain just that.

The first serious effort to mount a solar sail mission arose in the 1970s, after Battelle Memorial Institute scientist Jerome Wright came up with what would have been a headline-grabber.

Knowing that Comet Halley - arguably history's most famous comet - would be streaking past Earth in 1986, Wright calculated a flight path for a solar sail-powered scientific mission. If launched in 1981, the craft could conduct a prolonged, fly-along study of the comet, he wrote. (The comet achieved rock-star status when it appeared in 1759, right on the schedule that English astronomer Edmund Halley had predicted in 1705. Through a close reading of history, Halley identified it as the first known periodic comet, meaning it flies by Earth regularly, in this case about every 75 years.)

Bruce Murray, then JPL's director, ordered an engineering study and pitched the idea to NASA management. In late 1976, the agency green-lighted design work. Murray turned to Louis Friedman to run the lab's Halley Comet Rendezvous-Solar Sail Project; four years later, they would join with astronomer Carl Sagan to form the nonprofit Planetary Society, which promotes space exploration.

Friedman, now the society's executive director, recalls that his team first considered a one piece, 800-by-800-meter (about a half-mile on a side) solar sail. Then they opted for a "heliogyro" design with eight blades, each 7.5 kilometers long. Like a helicopter's rotor, the blades would spin for control and stability. Despite its gargantuan size, the team reasoned that the heliogyro could be deployed more easily than the square sail by using naturally occurring centrifugal force to unroll the individual blades as the craft spun.

"To be honest we were overreaching at that time," Friedman says. "Halley was a once-in-a lifetime opportunity, so you wanted to go for it. We should have focused on step-by-step technological development as we're trying to do now. Had we achieved a solar sail flight - any flight - we would be using that technology today. It would have caught on and been a great asset in planning planetary missions, even doing sample-return from asteroids and comets."

In the end, NASA scrapped the heliogyro in favor of solar-electric propulsion, which provides thrust through magnetism and electricity generated by a spacecraft's solar panels. But rising cost estimates scuttled that system as well. Ultimately, NASA failed to send a mission to Halley, although Soviet, Japanese and European spacecraft did fly by the comet.

Even if the agency had stuck with the heliogyro, it never would have made the rendezvous because deployment required an operational space shuttle - and that program was way behind schedule. Although Enterprise, the prototype shuttle, rolled out in 1979 and proved that the stubby-winged craft could glide and land,

Columbia, the first operational vehicle to lift into space, didn't fly until 1981 - and Halley wasn't on its task list.

That pretty much ended NASA's interest in solar sails until early in this century, when it commissioned contractors to build two differing prototypes of 400-square-meter sails that would fit into a suitcase-sized box during launch. The two prototypes were tested in the world's largest space simulator, but never made it off the ground. When President George W. Bush directed NASA to concentrate on sending astronauts to Mars, the agency eliminated solar sails and many other science projects.

President Barack Obama is reviewing the agency's goals and the spotlight has been on manned missions. His U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee recently recommended that Mars should be the ultimate, but not the first, destination. Rather, the United States, with international and commercial partners, should either return to the moon or take a "flexible path" to points in the inner solar system.

Whether solar sails will become a priority is not known, but NASA is considering another test. In 2008, the agency cannibalized earlier large prototypes to build two versions of NanoSail-D (D for demonstration), a 100-square-foot sail weighing under 4 kilograms (8.8 pounds). It hired the SpaceX firm to launch it, but the vehicle failed to reach orbit. Now it's contemplating a 2010 launch for its twin. Although NanoSail-D would deploy in space, the intent was not to work as a true solar sail; rather, it would test using the sail as an atmospheric drag break to slow down a satellite as it re-enters the atmosphere after a mission.

Others are pursuing solar sail technology more aggressively.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, whose adventuresome projects get scant attention in the U.S. media, became the first to deploy thin-film solar sails in a 2004 suborbital flight. A second test followed two years later.

Meanwhile, in 2005 The Planetary Society used $3.5 million in private funds ($2 million from Cosmos Studios and the rest from space enthusiasts) to contract with Russia's Space Research Institute to build and launch Cosmos 1. It was designed to be the first solar sail to be deployed from Earth's surface. The New York Times Magazine called it one of the most innovative ideas of the year. Cosmos 1 had eight triangular blades, each 50 feet long, arranged like an umbrella, but each blade could pivot independently. The intent was modest: By proving that the pressure of photons would raise its orbit, it would clear the path for substantial missions. However, the military Volna rocket, launched from a Russian submarine in the Barents Sea, malfunctioned, and Cosmos 1 was lost.

"We won't do Cosmos 1 again," Friedman says. "But motivated by NanoSail-D, we've become enamored of a smaller and lower-cost craft. We're studying the possibilities and will raise private money to do that. This is the way to the stars."

6 Ways to Protect the Earth


An asteroid is bound to be on a collision course with Earth sooner or later. It's happened before -- witness the extinction of the dinosaurs and 75 percent of all species after what is believed to be a 6-mile-wide asteroid struck 65 million years ago, gouging the Yucatán Peninsula's 190-mile-diameter Chicxulub Basin. Scientists worldwide suggest several ways of diverting the next known big one, 900-foot-diameter Apophis.

Solar Sails

One large sail, 50 to 100 meters (164 to 328 feet) across, directs sunlight onto a separate, smaller, thruster sail, which concentrates light on the asteroid's surface. The resulting heat vaporizes the rock, ejecting material and creating a jet. That imparts momentum and pushes the asteroid away.

Pros: Comparatively simple technology. Only method to steer Apophis into safe Earth orbit for mining.

Cons: Solar sails this size have never been built, launched and unfolded in space. The sail must remain on station for a year to produce the required deflection.

Kinetic Energy Impactor

Like a battering ram, a 1-ton craft slams into Apophis at 5,000 mph or faster, changing its direction three years before it nears Earth. A velocity change of only .0001 mph suffices for deflection.

Pros: Proven technology. NASA's 370-kg (814-pound) Deep Impact probe hit Comet Tempel 1 on July 4, 2005, gouging a crater bigger than a house and 14 stories deep to study ejected ice and dust.

Cons: Could cleave Apophis into smaller pieces with unknown trajectories. An off-center hit could impart spin, rather than changing direction.

Nuclear Interceptor

Detonating a nuclear bomb above the surface propels Apophis elsewhere.

Pros: Within current technology.

Cons: International law bars nuclear weapons in space. Apophis becomes radioactive.

Nuclear Mining

As in 1998 movie "Armageddon," drillers bury a nuclear bomb deep inside Apophis. The explosion pulverizes the asteroid.

Pros: Eliminates threat of a single huge impact on Earth.

Cons: Creates radioactive fragments of unpredictable size and trajectories. Drilling in space exceeds current technology.

Surface Thruster

A nuclear- or solar-powered ion-drive rocket engine lands on the asteroid, providing thrust that accelerates Apophis to the minimum .0001 mph for deflection.

Pros: NASA has proved ion-drive technology.

Cons: Rocket must be soft-landed, but asteroid's surface composition is not known. Because Apophis rotates, rocket needs a sophisticated control system to apply thrust in only one direction.

Gravity Tractor

Gravity from a spacecraft hovering near Apophis, plus the craft's thrust, tows Apophis away. Ex-astronaut Rusty Schweickart argues for this idea.

Pros: Avoids the rotation problems of a surface thruster.

Cons: The tractor needs to hover near the asteroid for a sustained period, remaining stable in an unstable environment and requiring much fuel.

One Small Step for CUNY...


Professor Shermane Austin, top, of Medgar Evers College, and students in the CUBESAT program: left to right, Castima Bullen, Cynthia Candia and Riguel Fabre.
The City University of New York is heading into space in a really small way - a scientific package in a cube just 10 centimeters on a side.

If everything goes as planned, in early 2011 NASA will launch CUNYSAT-1 into low Earth orbit to conduct an experiment utilizing Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites to measure the solar wind. About 20 undergraduates from several CUNY colleges are designing and building the cubes with the help of faculty mentors. They will control the satellite in flight and receive and analyze the data it transmits.

The CUNYSAT team hopes to detect the impact of the solar wind on the electrically charged ionosphere, the top part of the atmosphere. CUNYSAT will do this indirectly by using a sophisticated version of the GPS unit in your car.

A GPS unit figures out where it is by picking up signals sent simultaneously by several satellites and detecting minute time differences between them. But sometimes these invisible electromagnetic signals aren't clean.

"When the solar wind hits the ionosphere, it can distort the signals, causing them to scintillate, much as visible starlight can twinkle," says assistant professor Vazgen Shekoyan of Queensborough Community College. If CUNYSAT finds scintillation, the students will try to deduce atmospheric conditions.

"The first CUNYSAT is a proof of concept," says Shermane Austin, a computer science professor at Medgar Evers College. She and Cornell University professor Nathan Peck are CUNYSAT's co-principal investigators. The project is supported by a $140,000 NASA grant that's designed to stimulate interest in aerospace careers, particularly among minority students. "We want to make sure that our students understand the basic subsystems, and then our cubesats can get more sophisticated," Austin says.

At press time, CUNYSAT was in the final design planning stage. Assembly will begin this spring in a collaboration involving five professors at four CUNY campuses.

Austin mentors Medgar Evers College students who handle the data, command, telemetry and tracking subsystems. Shekoyan supervises Queensborough students handling the GPS unit, which was developed by Cornell research faculty. Medgar Evers assistant professor Michele Vittadello mentors City College electrical engineering students who work on the electrical power system. CCNY professor Charles Watkins directs City College mechanical engineering students who are designing mechanical interfaces and structural elements. And at the College of Staten Island, associate professor Irving Robbins supervises electrical engineering students who are implementing the ground station.

"Stanford and Cal Poly designed the specs for cubesats," Austin says. "Maybe 20 colleges, including our partner Cornell, are launching them, as is the European Space Agency as their main educational wing. NASA and NOAA [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] are pushing small satellites and launching them for free to augment science on their larger missions. CUNYSAT gives students real-world experiences. It's challenging and exciting at the same time."

What's in a Name?


Previously unpublished photo of asteroid Apophis (circled in green). This is the confirmation image made after the photo that led to its discovery. Surrounding the asteroid are star trails and a long diagonal trail from a satellite. The two vertical lines are electronic noise.
It began as 2004 MN4, a speck of light caught against the black of space by David Tholen of the University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy, Roy Tucker of the University of Arizona's Imaging Technology Laboratory and Fabrizio Bernardi, Tholen's postdoctoral student. Working under a NASA grant, they were seeking near-Earth asteroids that usually are hidden by the sun's glare.

Once they calculated its orbit, the International Astronomical Union gave this chunk of rock - tall as a 90-story building - a permanent number, 99942. The discoverers suggested a name to the IAU, one following the tradition of using Egyptian gods to name asteroids whose path is less than the distance from Earth to the Sun; but their suggestion cleverly recognized that in 2029 Earth's gravity would alter 99942's orbit to one greater than the distance from Earth to the Sun, which calls for a Greek god's name.

"When we ran across a reference that said Apophis is the Greek name for the Egyptian god Apep, we thought we had both bases covered," Tholen e-mailed. Apep, an evil serpent, dwells in darkness and vainly tries to swallow Ra, the sun god, during his journey across the nighttime sky.

And how had they heard of Apophis? "Mythology isn't exactly a big interest of mine, so when it came time to pick the name of an Egyptian god for 2004 MN4, I started investigating names that I already knew based on those that I had heard while watching Stargate SG-1," Tholen wrote. In that TV series, Apophis is a recurring villain bent on destroying the Earth. "Apophis just fit so well."

Tholen told this story of discovering the asteroid: He and Bernardi were committed to using the 8.2-meter (27-foot) Subaru telescope atop Hawaii's Mauna Kea volcano and, the next night, the 2.3-meter (7.6-foot) Bok telescope at Kitt Peak, Ariz. Since Kitt Peak requires an astronomer to train on the scope the night before using it, Tholen recruited Tucker, a former roommate.

In Arizona, the team's top priority was trying to locate a near-Earth asteroid that they had noticed in Hawaii. They programmed the telescope to follow its suspected path, but it was lost in a star's light. However, they did spot another asteroid - Apophis - on their two successive nights in Arizona. Tholen added that he and Bernardi had missed Apophis in Hawaii by a mere 120 arc seconds. (One arc second is 1/1,296,000th the diameter of a circle.) "It was just outside the field of discovery," he wrote.

Luckily for the future of the Earth, they spotted it - on June 18, 2004, Arizona time (June 19 GMT).

A Solar Sail Timeline

The notion of propelling a spacecraft using the sun’s light has a 400-year history.


The Great comet of 1577, seen over Prague on November 12. Engraving made by Jiri Daschitzky.
1577 Six-year-old Johannes Kepler sees the Great Comet; devises laws of planetary motion (1615-1621), reasons that sun's action causes a comet's tail (book Opera Omnia, 1619). The Great comet of 1577, seen over Prague on Nov 12. Engraving made by Jiri Daschitzky.

1873 Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell describes electromagnetic fields and radiation, postulates light pressure.

1900 Russian Peter Lebedev measures light pressure.

1903 Dartmouth College scientists G. F. Hull and Ernest Fox Nichols measure light pressure.

1915 Russian science writer Yakov Perelman correctly concludes that light pressure is too small to overcome gravity but does not consider using sails to increase force.

1924 Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, father of Soviet astronautics, suggests using solar pressure to drive spacecraft.

1924-1925 His associate, Latvian Fridrickh Tsander, is first to suggest large solar sails as means of interplanetary propulsion, with detailed theoretical and technical analysis.

1929 British physicist and socialist John Desmond Bernal, better known for X-ray crystallography and molecular biology, predicts "space sailing" in a philosophic book, the first description in the West.

1951 Rockwell Engineering's Carl Wiley writes influential article about space travel using solar sails assembled in orbit (thin metal film tied to payload by shrouds); fearing loss of credibility, his nonfiction essay appears in Astounding Science Fiction under pseudonym (Russell Saunders).

1958 Richard Garwin, Defense Department consultant at IBM's Watson laboratory, publishes first technical paper in western scientific journal, Jet Propulsion; coins phrase "solar sailing."

1958 Ted Cotter of Los Alamos National Laboratory proposes spinning the sail for stability without a structure.


1960 NASA launches Echo 1 (left, with design team), first U.S. passive communications satellite (aluminum-coated Mylar plastic balloon; microwaves bounce off it); first time NASA includes solar pressure in calculating trajectory. Solar pressure moves "satelloon" but doesn't collapse it.

1963 In Project Needles, U.S. places 500 million hair-like copper wires in orbit to see whether they'd work as passive communications relay satellite; MIT sends messages coast to coast. Needles burn up harmlessly in atmosphere, verifying prediction that sunlight pressure would lower their orbit.

1964 Arthur C. Clarke publishes influential science fiction story, "The Wind from the Sun," describing a competition by solar sailing craft in a race to moon.

1967 Astro Research Corp. engineer Richard MacNeal suggests a "heliogyro" — long, thin blades rotating around a central core, like a helicopter; first proposes two blades 5,700 meters long, 1.5 meters wide, 6 microns thick (3.5 miles by 4.9 feet by .0002 inches); later suggests 30-kilometer (18.6-mile-long) blades.


1974-75 NASA turns Mariner 10's solar panels (right) like sails to turn craft while maintaining trajectory, allowing more visits to Mercury than on-board liquid fuel system would allow.

1975 Battelle Memorial Institute engineer Jerome Wright proposes sending solar-sail craft to rendezvous with Comet Halley in 1986.

1977-78 Louis Friedman leads NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory team to design Halley mission, a heliogyro with 7.5-kilometer-long blades (4.7 miles long). Later saying it can't be build for 1981 launch, NASA ends solar sail research for 20+ years.

1986 U.S. issues patent for a solar sail design using a thin metal film to Kim Eric Drexler, who begins patent application with discussion of Wiley, Clarke, MacNeal, JPL program. He earlier pioneered the concept of transporting mined materials from asteroids toward Earth and wrote an early popular book on nanotechnology (Engines of Creation, 1986, revised 2007).

1993 Russians deploy first solar sail in space. Leaving Mir space station, Progress resupply vehicle releases Znamya, a spinning, 20-meter (66-foot) mirror; its boom uncoils into a tubular mast; electric motor draws aluminized Mylar sail up the mast.

2001 NASA hires contractors to build two prototypes of 400-square-meter solar sails (2002). Each has four triangular sails, 20 meters (66 feet) on outside, supported by booms. They automatically unfold from suitcase-sized box. L'Garde Inc. uses inflatable booms that flex on Earth but stiffen in cold of space (see cover). ATK Space Systems' booms twist open like screws.

2004 Bush administration halts most solar sail work as it funnels money to a vaguely defined moon-Mars mission (goals the Obama administration is reviewing).


2004 Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) achieves first deployment of thin-film solar sails, testing two designs and deployment techniques in suborbital flight. One, shaped like a clover, is seen at right during deployment from rocket.

2005 Financed privately, nonprofit Planetary Society builds Cosmos 1, slated to be first orbiting Earth-launched solar sail. Goal is to prove sunlight pressure will raise its altitude. Cosmos 1 is lost when a converted ballistic missile launched by a Russian submarine does not reach orbit.


Artist's conception of Cosmos 1 (2005)
2005 NASA successfully tests the two sail prototypes in its space environment simulator, estimates they could be scaled to 150 meters on a side, identifies a 2009 flight opportunity.

2006 JAXA conducts second solar sail test.

2008 NASA readies NanoSail-D (D for demonstration), made by cannibalizing earlier prototype, but SpaceX company's commercial rocket fails to reach orbit.

2009 Planetary Society continues work on new solar sail mission.

2010 Tentative date for NASA to launch NanoSail-D's twin.