JAXA’s little space camera that could

17 06 2010

A quick update on the recently-launched IKAROS Japanese solar sail spacecraft:  Earlier this week the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) reported visual confirmation that IKAROS’s solar sail has fully expanded as designed.

IKAROS solar sail fully deployed. Credit: JAXA

As you can see, a complete success!  Congratulations are in order all around to the IKAROS team as the craft enters into its full test mode and JAXA sees just how fast they can get this thing to go.

…But the real story here to me, considering that IKAROS is now on its way to Venus, is “How did they get this picture?”  The image is much too close for a remote telescope to have taken it.  It’s almost as though some unsung hero behind the lens stepped outside for a moment to snap a quick shot.

Enter the little camera that could:

Image of the Separation Camera prior to launch. Credit: JAXA

Unassumingly called “separation camera 1,” this tiny wireless device – one of two twin cameras small enough to fit inside a film canister that were packed next to IKAROS’s central structure – was launched away by spring and grabbed the hero shot of the solar sail as it drifted away.

What a cool idea, and it was flawlessly executed, to boot.

So, here’s to you, Separation Camera 1.  IKAROS gets all the glory, but without you, we’d have never seen it.

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.

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.


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