June 14, 2001

Houston company wants to sail DNA into space

Associated Press

California businessman Dennis Tito paid about $20 million for an eight-day trip to space. Now, a Houston-based company can send you to space for $50. Well, part of you anyway.

Encounter 2001 is working to build an unmanned spacecraft, fill it with DNA samples and messages from up to 4.5 million people, then blast it beyond the solar system. The company hopes to launch its spacecraft in late 2003.

"This is a chance for people to participate in a real space mission," said Charles Chafer, Encounter 2001 president. "Maybe one day it will be found."

For $50, people can have their digitized photos and messages as well as hair samples placed on the spacecraft.

Encounter 2001 is the sister company of Celestis Inc., which in April 1997 began using commercial rockets to launch the cremated remains of people into space.

Encounter's spacecraft will be made up of a solar sail the size of a football field and a small container carrying the photos and messages, plus dehydrated hair samples with the DNA codes of 4.5 million people.

The solar sail -- the spacecraft's power source -- is a very thin sheet of reflective material that will use the sun's photons to propel it forward, Chafer said. The concept is similar to a sailboat being pushed along the water by the force of the wind.

Like wind, sunlight exerts pressure and a large enough sail in space could harness this force and travel without using fuel. Although a solar sail is at first slower than a conventional rocket, it continues to accelerate over time and achieves a greater velocity.

NASA and several private groups are working on plans to use solar sail technology.

The spacecraft, to be launched on an Ariane 5 rocket, will orbit Earth for three weeks so ground controllers can conduct system checks.

After the spacecraft leaves Earth orbit, it will deploy its solar sail and begin its journey.

It will take about 15 years for the spacecraft to fly past Pluto, the solar system's outermost planet. When the sailcraft leaves the solar system, it will be traveling at 7.8 miles per second. That compares with the space shuttle's on-orbit speed of 5 miles per second.

The spacecraft's imaging component is scheduled to be tested during space shuttle Endeavour's mission in late November.

The mission is expected to cost about $25 million. Most of that is being paid by private investors. Some of the money, though, is coming from public participation in the project.

About 67,000 people so far have paid to take part in the mission. Chafer said he expects the bulk of sales of participation kits to occur in the six months before the launch.

Jim Glock, a teacher at Fairmont Junior High School in suburban Deer Park, got 140 students in six of his sixth, seventh and eighth grade classes signed up two years ago.

"I wanted them to see how vast the universe is and the time and distances there are to go from point A to point B," Glock said.

Another purchaser is famed science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, who said he was delighted to be taking part, in some way, in technology he wrote about. His 1963 short story "The Wind from the Sun" envisioned space travel by using solar sails.

"Fare well my clone!" Clarke wrote on his message, referring to his DNA on board.

"One day, some super civilization may encounter this relic from the vanished species and I may exist in another time," Clarke told The Associated Press in an interview late last year.

The work of Encounter and Celestis is a natural progression of the exploration of space, Chafer said.

"Governments open the frontiers but without strong commercial components, frontiers don't go anywhere," he said. "It's sort of a natural evolution, combining real missions with the mass market."

File Date: 6.15.01