May 032010

Space Sail

After lots of talk and testing, Japanese researchers are ready to go space sailing. Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) announced its intention to launch its first “space yacht” propelled by solar sails into the heavens on May 18. Ikaros — the Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation of the Sun — will cruise through the solar system powered by solar particles that bounce of its giant, ultra-thin sails.

Ikaros — which aside from being a somewhat clumsy acronym is also an allusion to the Greek mythological character who flew too close to the sun — marks the first time a space craft will enter deep space towed by solar sails, which provide a fuel-free means to explore the solar system provided the craft is near enough the sun to catch a particle powered breeze. Several prototype space sails have been unfurled in orbit by various agencies including NASA, but as far as long-term propulsion is concerned the Ikaros mission is solar sailing’s coming out party.

Ikaros’s 46-foot flexible sails are thinner than a human hair and equipped with thin-film solar cells that will generate power for the craft, which mission controllers on the ground will steer by making adjustments to the angle at which incoming radiation strikes the sails. Such technological strides haven’t come cheap; JAXA has already poured $16 million into the vehicle, and there’s no guarantee this maiden voyage beyond orbit will succeed.

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