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Solar 'Space Yacht' Satellite to Be Launched

Japan plans to launch a satellite powered by a  large solar sail for a six month mission.  A  solar sail captures the momentum of photons from the sun to propel the satellite, something like the manner in which a sailboat moves due to the thrust of wind. In this case, solar cells on the sail will generate electricity for propulsion.

Named Ikaros, (Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun) it will be the first solar sail satellite ever launched into space. Data from the mission will be collected to use in a longer mission with another solar sailor to Jupiter.

The solar sail is 20 meters wide, and made of thin solar film that has a thickness less than the diameter of a human hair. Hiroaki Benten at Kyoto University said of the technology: 

“Solar film has an enormous potential for use in our everyday lives if this technology becomes economically viable ”.  Some of the thin film solar cells for the Japanese solar satellite were supplied by Powerfilm, Inc.  a company in Ames, Iowa.

Potential velocity using a solar sailor has been theorized to be extemely high.

“Eventually you’ll have these missions lasting many years, reaching speeds approaching 100,000 mph, getting out of the solar system in five years instead of 25 years,” said Louis D. Frieman, the Executive Director of the Planetary Society.

One hope of the missions outside of space exploration is that the research will lead to lower cost solar cell technology for everyday use.

Image Credit: Japanese Space Exploration Agency

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