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Japanese space agency set to make history with launch of the solar-sailing IKAROS probe

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IKAROS solar sailThe Japanese space agency is preparing to launch what could become the first spacecraft to sail across the solar system on sunlight. IKAROS (Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation of the Sun), piggybacking on the launch of a Venus climate orbiter, is scheduled for a May 20 liftoff at 5:58 P.M., Eastern Daylight Time, according to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The two missions will blast off from JAXA’s Tanegashima Space Center, a launch complex on a small island in southern Japan.

IKAROS is designed to harness traditional solar power as well as the gentle push of sunlight, known as radiation pressure. After cruising away from Earth for several weeks, the craft will unfurl a large, gossamer sail, 14 meters on a side but just 7.5 microns thick, to catch moving photons the same way a ship’s sail catches wind. (A micron is one millionth of a meter.) The solar sail is expected to carry IKAROS past Venus in about six months’ time.

If JAXA succeeds in propelling its craft between the planets using a solar sail, it would mark a hard-won success in demonstrating the technology—two of IKAROS’s recent predecessors have succumbed to rocket malfunctions. In 2005, the nonprofit Planetary Society lost its Cosmos 1 orbiter after the solar sail–powered craft failed to reach orbit on a submarine-launched Russian rocket. NASA’s 2008 attempt, called NanoSail-D, also failed to reach orbit on a SpaceX Falcon 1 rocket.

Image credit: JAXA

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  1. 1. neilrued 7:45 pm 05/19/2010

    I hope that it’s third time lucky for the human race, and that the IKAROS spacecraft successfully lifts off and that the solar sail technology delivers its promise.

    This technology may make long term Solar System exploration a reality when possibly combined with ion propulsion.

    The research money spent on this project is far more worthwhile due to the potential increase in the useful life of interplanetary spacecraft. Imagine how much more science the Galileo spacecraft could’ve achieved with a Solar Sail; instead they had to crash it into the Jovian moon Io when it ran out of propellant used to maintain and manage its orbital profile around Jupiter and its moons.

    I assume the crash was necessary to avoid it becoming a navigational hazard for future spacecraft or to avoid it crashing accidentaly into Europa; a Jovian moon that has the best chance for extraterrestrial life in our Solar System.

    Link to this
  2. 2. jtdwyer 5:04 am 05/20/2010

    neilrued – I certainly agree. This technology might allow the nearly perpetual exploration of the Solar system – long after humanity has disappeared.

    One question – wasn’t the Galileo spacecraft sent into Jupiter itself,
    ironically Icarus-like, to avoid contaminating any of the Jovian moons?

    Link to this

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