AIR SPACE

How Does a Solar Sail Work?

Japan plans to launch and test an innovative new form of propulsion: a solar sail named Ikaros (Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun). How does it work?

The Ikaros Solar Sail Project

IKAROS is a space yacht that gathers energy for propulsion from sunlight pressure by means of a membrane (or a solar sail.) The Japanese space agency's mission aims at verifying navigation technology using a solar sail for first time in the world.

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)

Building the Craft

At 5:44:14 p.m. EDT on Monday, May 17, the craft, seen here during construction in Japan, will launch from Japan's Tanegashima Space Center launching site. It piggybacks on the launch of Akatsuki, a climate monitoring satellite that will target Venus.

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)

Heart of the Craft

A solar sail can move forward without consuming propellant as long as it can generate enough energy from sunlight. This idea of a solar sail was born some 100 years ago, as we often find it in science fiction novels, but it has not been realized to date. At the heart of Ikaros is this large camera. 

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)

Releasing the Sail

The craft is a "spin-type explorer," according to the Japanese space agency. It will deploy its square solar-gathering membrane (46 feet to the side, or 66 meters across) using the centrifugal force in space.

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)

Arms Fully Unfurled

Once the craft's arms are fully extended, the solar gathering material can be deployed. The solar sail used for the IKAROS is made of polyimide resin deposited with aluminum. It is very thin, about 1/10 of a human hair.

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)

Close Up of Sails

On top of this thin sail, various devices are equipped, including the thin film solar cells, a liquid crystal device that controls attitude by changing light reflection characteristics, a temperature sensor, and a dust counter.

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)

Arms Opening Up

Here, the arms of the Ikaros craft fully extended, the solar sail begins deploying. The centrifugal force of the rotating craft helps deploy the ultra thin material. 

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)

Sails Unfurling

As the membrane is released, it snakes out dynamically until it reaches full deployment. 

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)

Solar Sail, Deployed

After its deployment, JAXA will evaluate the performance of the power generation by the thin film solar cell on the membrane, then perform experiments by navigating deep space through sunlight pressure power.

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)

How Does a Solar Sail Work?

Japan plans to launch and test an innovative new form of propulsion: a solar sail named Ikaros (Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun). How does it work?

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