New spacecraft to set (solar) sail

28 04 2010

Rendering of IKAROS with sail extended. Credit: JAXA

It’s the season of star sailing!  Amongst a suite of new, efficient space propulsion systems getting field tests in the near future is the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)’s Solar Power Sail.  Named IKAROS, the craft is hitching a ride to orbit with the Venus Climate Orbiter and is intended to test whether or not a spacecraft can simultaneously use solar energy for direct propulsion (sail) and electrical support (power).  While IKAROS will not be fitted with a more conventional propulsion system, the idea is that solar power generation from the sail could simultaneously provide power for parallel propulsion, such as ion engines.  IKAROS is intended to pave the way for an actual integrated sail/ion-propulsion spacecraft set to travel to Jupiter and the Trojan asteroids later this decade.

This spacecraft is not alone.  To those who have been following the technology, thoughts of a similar spacecraft immediately come to mind:  the Cosmos 1.  Launched in 2005 by the Planetary Society, a private space activist organization, the spacecraft was a first-of-its-kind endeavor, not only because the technology being demonstrated was new, but also because the endeavour was entirely private in nature.  Tragically, after being launched from a Russian submarine, the Volna rocket carrying Cosmos 1 malfunctioned and crashed back to Earth in its second minute of flight. 

Rendering of Lightsail-1. Credit: Planetary Society

However, the Planetary Society has dusted itself off and has already constructed a new solar sail; its Lightsail-1 mission is also set to launch by the end of this year.  (Note the similarities in design renderings!  I suspect a little friendly borrowing is at play…)  While without the “hybrid” technology nature of its Japanese counterpart, Lightsail-1 is actually constructed of a deployable mylar sail and three Cubesat spacecraft, which are cube-shaped industry-standard 10-centimeter spacecraft weighing no more than 1 kilogram each.  Lightsail-1 is intended to pave the way for a network of geomagnetic storm early-warning solar sail-craft.

Star-Sailor (Latin astro + nauta = astronaut) has never been so literal.

Sweet.

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