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IKAROS Unfurls Sails on Deep Space Exploration

June 11, 2010 1 comment

The Japanese make all the coolest gadgets.

IKAROS with Solar Sail Unfurled. Photo: JAXA

Today, the Japanese spacecraft IKAROS opened its solar sail in an attempt to prove that solar wind can be used for propulsion for deep-space flight.

IKAROS stands for ‘Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun’. The acronym is a bit of  a stretch, trying to relate the spacecraft to the Greek mythological character, Icarus.

Young Icarus attempted to flee the island of Crete by flying with wings made of wax. Perhaps not the greatest choice in name for the spacecraft, as poor Icarus flew too close to the sun, melting his wings and he fell to his death…

The Lament For Icarus

But Greek Icarus did not have the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency behind him, so hopefully IKAROS can do better. Using the momentum of charged particles to accelerate a spacecraft has long been proposed as an effective means of propelling a spacecraft in deep space at high speeds, without having to carry large amounts of fuel. The idea is based on the idea that even if the solar wind pressure produces a very small amount of acceleration, the acceleration is constant, and the spacecraft should be able to reach speeds of 50 km/s or more.

IKAROS has a sail made of polymide and is 0.0075 mm thick. It has a surface area of roughly 200 metres squared and is AWESOME.

Call me an old softy, but there is something poetic in exploring space using huge sails just like the explorers of old like Magellan, who sailed the oceans.

Magellan's Ship 'Victoria'

They were heading into the unknown with only nature to power them, and it seems we are about to do the same.