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Space

Relativistic Navigation Needed For Solar Sails 185

KentuckyFC writes "Last year, physicists calculated that a solar sail about a kilometer across with a mass of 300 kg (including 150 kg of payload) would have a peak acceleration of roughly 0.6g if released about 0.1AU from the Sun, where the radiation pressure is highest. That kind of acceleration could take it to the heliopause — the boundary between the Solar System and interstellar space — in only 2.5 years; a distance of 200 AU. In 30 years, it could travel 2500AU, far enough to explore the Oort Cloud. But the team has discovered a problem. Ordinary Newtonian physics just doesn't cut it for the kind of navigational calculations needed for this journey. Because the sail has to be released so close to the Sun, it becomes subject to the effects of general relativity. And although the errors these introduce are small, they become magnified over the course of a long journey, sending the sail roughly 1 million kilometers off course by the time it reaches the Oort Cloud. What these guys are saying is that if ever such a sail is launched (and the earliest estimate is 2040), the navigators will have to be proficient in a new discipline of relativistic navigation."

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