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JAXA Successfully Deploys Solar Sail IKAROS

June 11, 2010

Japanese Space Exploration Agency (JAXA), has successfully deployed their solar sail IKAROS. The deployment started on June 3rd and today it was confirmed that the sail has been fully expanded and it is also generating electricity from thin solar films on the sail. It’s a great achievement for the mission itself as well as for the whole idea of solar sails for future space explorations. The main idea of solar sail is to utilize solar radiations to provide thrust and propel towards or away from the sun. the current propulsion technology requires fuel which provides higher speeds but can only go to a certain distance before the fuel runs out. Solar sail doesnt require any fuel, so it can go for ever and can even be controlled to come back to earth. Solar sail though needs a launch vehicle, like it was done in this mission, and after its deployed properly it can use radiation pressure to provide thrust to itself and propel forward. Photons provide momentum, which is small, but can provide acceleration to thin film of the solar sail. IKAROS membrane thickness is about 0.3 mm. With time, the acceleration keeps on increasing and eventually it can even surpass the maximum velocity provided by current fuel based propulsion system, almost 5 times faster.Thus making deep sace missions a possibility. IKAROS will not only be utilizing radiation pressure for propulsion, but it also got solar pannels which are generating electricity, which in turn can be used to generate ions and provide further propulsion. There are lots of Ifs and buts in successful application of solar sails for space missions, and deployment was one of the major hurdles, so one hurdle crossed and hopefully in coming days we will get to hear some more good news from JAXA. The sail is currently about 770 kms from the earth and for next six months it will be travelling to Venus, if everything goes all well. IKAROS becomes the first space mission to be powered by solar radiation. There has been previous efforts by NASA and other organizations but was unsuccessful, deployment was one of the main issue. Congrats to JAXA team for this achievement. Here is a picture from the camera attached on the spacecraft showing deployment of the solar sail.

Photo credit: JAXA

Filed under: Science,Technology

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