Japan successfully launched its first Solar Sail this year calling it Ikaros, as an ode to the famous child of the same name (though his name was spelt Icarus) in Greek mythology. The son of the craftsman Daedalus, Icarus attempted to escape the island of Crete using wings his father had made for him from wax and feathers. Ignoring Daedalus’ warnings Icarus flew too close to the Sun, melting the wax on the wings and sending the boy to his death in the ocean below him.
JAXA’s Ikaros was the first of its kind to successfully reach space (NASA has just released theirs), and was designed to obtain its energy from sunlight via a thin solar sail membrane, which can then convert the light into power. It was carried into space by a H-IIA rocket, and its purpose was to measure the amount of solar energy and radiation it could muster from the Sun and to what speed it could accelerate as it heads towards Venus. JAXA also wanted to see if tiny reflective, liquid crystal panels installed on the sail could control Ikaros’ attitude.
Ikaros was launched sometime in May of this year, began unfurling its solar sail in June, and by July JAXA was able to confirm the sail was working properly and causing the craft to accelerate in speed. The news is wild success for space travel in all aspects.
Fast-forward 4 months to this past November and NASA has just launched their own Solar Sail for testing aboard the FASTSAT (Fast, Affordable, Science, Technology Satellite). Just this morning the NanoSail-D abandoned the FASTSAT it caught a ride from, and will now have to wait three days before unfurling the ultra-thin polymer sail. Once deployed the sail should reach a size of 100-square feet and will attempt to maintain low-Earth orbit for as long as it can, by gathering light and radiation from the Sun. NASA is expecting the NanoSail-D to be able to cruise over the Earth from at least 7-120 days.
The name NanoSail might not make sense to you, considering the fact it’s 100-square feet in size when deployed, but before being unfurled the sail is about the size of a loaf of bread. However, JAXA’s Ikaros’ sail is far larger when deployed, being about 160-square feet. NASA designates any craft weighing between 1 and 5 kilograms as ‘Nano’.
NanoSail-D’s purpose is completely experimental. NASA is hoping to show that Solar Sails could be used to degrade a satellites orbit at its end of service, eliminating the amount of fuel needed to leave orbit. The unused fuel will extend the amount of time a satellite could perform its job.
NASA also hopes to show that once deployed the microsatellite will be able to remain in orbit without having to come in contact with the FASTSAT again, showing that this technology is a viable method to send other crafts off into the stars. In about three days when the solar sails are released it won’t be long before we can test that theory.
Solar Sails are also being hailed as the future of space travel, if the technology proves successful (my fingers are crossed), as it is an alternative method to hauling vast amounts of fuel. The reason fuel is so cumbersome is mainly the fact it weighs a lot! Having to carry such hefty loads makes it so the ship carrying it must be stronger and bigger, which then requires more fuel. You can see what a vicious cycle it becomes. After all a single shuttle launch is about $450 million. Everyone in astronomy is hoping Solar Sails can slash that price greatly!
As always keep your eyes to the sky, and hope those ultra-thin polymer membranes don’t rip!