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No flight of fancy

THE four most distant man-made spacecraft launched so far - the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Pioneer 10 and 11 probes launched in 1972-73 and the Voyager 1 and 2 missions launched in 1977 - took about 11 to 12 years to fly by the farthest planets in the solar system. NASA's latest mission to Pluto, New Horizons, which was launched in January 2006, is expected to fly by Pluto in July 2015 at a speed of about 14 kilometres a second.

But if the new concept of space propulsion without the use of propellants - the electric solar wind sail or electric sail - proposed by two Finnish scientists can be made to work, this distance could be covered by a medium-sized satellite moving at speeds of 50-100 km/s, in less than five years, and the interstellar space beyond the heliosphere can be reached in less than 15 years. The idea, in fact, holds out the potential of being realised in the near term with available technology. It is not in the realms of science fiction or futuristic propulsion technology. More