This Week: Space Falcons and Solar Sails

11 06 2010

It’s with no small sense of excitement that I report two important developments this past week.  First, of course, is the successful inaugural flight of the Falcon 9 rocket I’ve been following for some time now (herehere, and here).

Liftoff of the Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral, June 4, 2010. Credit: SpaceX

As the frontrunner corporate replacement for NASA’s retiring Space Shuttle, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) has proven with this launch that they have the right stuff.  Their proprietary Merlin-class engines, Falcon series rockets, and their Apollo-styled Dragon spacecraft are primed to keep the good ol’ USA in the space transportation game through the transition, lessening our reliance on Russia’s (Energia’s) Soyuz and Progress spacecraft.  Details of the Falcon 9 launch include what SpaceX claims is an “orbital bulls-eye” -a near-perfect circular orbit at an altitude of 155 miles- and a wealth of aerodynamic data during ascent that they will use to refine future launches.  If you haven’t seen it, check out a high-def video of the launch here.

IKAROS solar sail partially unfurled last week. Credit: JAXA

Secondly, I’d like to applaud the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA‘s) recent successful full deployment of their IKAROS (Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by the Radiation Of the Sun) spacecraft’s solar sail.  (An illustration showing this process can be found here.)  The breakthrough craft, which was launched in late May, employs a hybrid sail intended to use solar radiation as a passive means of propulsion as well as a source of electrical power.

IKAROS is now on its way toward our sister planet, Venus.  During the next six months, JAXA researchers will step on the gas, orienting the sail for maximum acceleration to see how fast they can get IKAROS to go.  Should the light weight and utterly practical technology prove successful, look for similar systems to begin showing up on future spacecraft.

In all, a very exciting time, with much more on deck.  Stay tuned.

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5 responses

15 06 2010
Andrew Emmett

It’s an exciting time to be following all the space events and related activity. I don’t know why more people are not interested. It is simple incredible what is achieved.

Today we have the Soyuz rocket launch and I think a couple of satellites are going up earlier in the day also.

So much going on, with amazing data be collected. Quite hard to keep up with it all!

16 06 2010
astrowright

I share your frustration – why isn’t this stuff on the evening news every night?? I don’t think it’s that people aren’t interested – I think it’s that people are not exposed. The media is plenty good at making things exciting if they deem it worthy. That may be the real final frontier – finding a way for space science to break through the media wall.

Thanks for reading!

16 06 2010
Andrew Emmett

Your right about the media. Especially I guess due to the complex nature of why these missions occur. Though I wish more was taught in schools also, perhaps that will change over time.

I like your take on the subject ‘ the real final frontier’. Well your doing your part to work towards breaking down the barriers and spreading the news and information.

Best Regards

17 06 2010
astrowright

Andrew –

Thanks for the comments and for the continued reads! I too partially fault public education for a lack of interest in space science, but it isn’t teachers’ failures. The problem in my view is much higher up. To really address the problem, I think we need to re-inspire corporations and public marketing to take up the space exploration banner once again, helping paint the latest innovations, from cars to laundry machines to liquor, as part of a future amongst the stars. Just an idea, anyway. Two cents.

Cheers,
Ben

6 07 2010
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