June 16, 2010

Ikaros Solar Sail Fully Extends Successfully

A tiny camera has revealed that Japan's Ikaros solar sail is fully extended and ready for the next part of its mission.

The camera that took the picture was ejected from the central hub of Ikaros. 

It transmitted the image back to the central hub of the spacecraft, which relayed the data back to Earth.

Ikaros will demonstrate the principle of solar sailing, which has been long envisioned as a future means of getting around the Solar System.

The pressure of sunlight should drive the hub and its membrane through space.

Japanese space agency (JAXA) scientists want to detect a measurable acceleration in the spacecraft as photons.

They will attempt to change direction of Ikaros by altering the angle of the sail.  There are thrusters in the hub to do this, but the researchers want to see if it is possible to do it by simply adjusting the reflectivity of LCDs embedded in the sail.

Ikaros was launched as a piggyback mission to Japan's Akatsuki Venus orbiter on May 20.  Akatsuki is scheduled to arrive at Venus in December.

Ikaros is the first large-scale demonstration of a solar sail, although some conventional satellites already use reflective flaps to maintain their orbit more efficiently.

Ikaros still faces some challenges though.

The project team will be particularly concerned about trying to keep the sail fully extended and flat.  To do this, Ikaros must spin and make one or two revolutions each minute.

Other solar sail scientists say that if instabilities develop in this type of design, Ikaros could start to fold in on itself.


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