Japan: Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) was set to launch its solar sail hybrid spacecraft which can not only negate the need for on board fuel, but also travel 5 to 10 times faster than conventional spacecrafts in space. However, the launch was delayed due to bad weather at the site.
The spacecraft, dubbed Ikaros - for Interplanetary Kite-Craft Accelerated by Radiation of the Sun, has a hybrid solar sail—propelled partly by solar pressure, partly by traditional solar power.
Once in space, the cylindrical, 677-pound (307-kilogram) craft will separate from the rocket and spin itself to unfurl its roughly 46-foot-wide (14-meter-wide) solar sail.
Synonymous to a yacht on sea, when the sun’s rays bounce onto a mirror like aluminized solar sail, each photon strikes and transmits its momentum to the spacecraft, which begins to gather speed in the almost frictionless environment of space – reaching up to ten times the speed of regular rockets.
“Ikaros is considered a hybrid, because the sail``s membrane—itself just 0.0075 millimeters thick—sports thin-film solar cells for generating electricity, which will power Ikaros``s high-efficiency ion-propulsion engines,” National Geographic News quoted Yuichi Tsuda, deputy project manager for Ikaros, as saying.
"As soon as the sail has deployed, the craft will be able to start solar sailing," Tsuda said. "Over the six-month scheduled duration of the mission, we believe it will reach a velocity of a hundred meters [328 feet] per second."
Flying along the same path as the Akatsuki spacecraft, Ikaros will aim for Venus, but researchers are hoping it can fly beyond too.
The craft will send back data on the basic state of the core spacecraft, how much power it is generating versus how much it``s using, and the status of the sail.
Six cameras aboard the craft will help the team monitor how the sail deploys and how it fares during its trip.
Although increasing distance from Earth will make communication increasingly difficult, Tsuda``s team hopes to be able to operate the vehicle and collect data for at least a year.
After that, lessons learned from Ikaros will be applied to its planned successor, a craft equipped with a 164-foot-wide (50-meter-wide) solar-power sail that will be launched toward Jupiter around 2020.
JAXA has been working closely with the California-based Planetary Society, which aims to get its own solar sail—LightSail-1, which will carry a lighter craft, according to Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society.
This craft, however, will be capable of higher accelerations and an important step toward utilization of solar power to harness energy.
Friedman said the technology is crucial for the next generation of space travel.
"It is the only known technology which may someday enable interstellar flight," he said.
The challenges of this power are that the added weight of people and supplies may cause difficulty in attaining the required acceleration to take off.
But Tsuda believes that Ikaros will open up new frontiers in robotic space exploration.
"On the 2020 mission, we hope to be able to go to the Jupiter system and the concentrated belt of asteroids that exist nearby that are known as the Trojan asteroid region," Tsuda said.
First Published: Tuesday, May 18, 2010, 13:50