Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A ray of sunshine

In practice, finally, as well as in theory, every ray counts.

JAXA (the Japanese aerospace agency) has successfully demonstrated solar sailing with IKAROS (Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun). IKAROS does more than ride the sunlight; it also has thin-film solar cells to generate electricity from the light.

The nearby image was taken with a tiny camera jettisoned by IKAROS itself. Beautiful, isn't it? More here.

There's nothing in the image to provide a sense of scale, but IKAROS is twenty meters across. For the follow-on mission, JAXA envisions a fifty-meter sail.

How much pressure does sunlight exert? Very little: the measured force exerted on IKAROS is 1.12 millinewtons. By tacking toward the sun -- IKAROS is headed for Venus -- the mission will reach regions with more intense sunlight. The thing about sunlight in space ... it just keeps coming. Over time, that bit of a push will produce serious acceleration.

(A millinewton, you ask? That's the force on a Fig Newton crumb falling at standard gravity. Or maybe it's a many-legged critter eating a Fig Newton. Or Mrs. Isaac Newton. Or 0.001 kg meter squared / second squared. You decide  :-)  

Solar sailing is the type of project NASA might try (or retry -- AFAIK, the last NASA solar-sail attempt failed in 2008) if NASA's priority -- according to the Administrator! -- wasn't raising self-esteem in the third world.

Don't believe me about NASA's current priorities? Check this syndicated op-ed piece from the Washington Post (among many papers).

And try not to cry.


Robert said...

Hopefully the solar sail is not the closest we will come to a 0-propulsion mass, spacecraft, it is awesome however that we have gone this far. It is still strange to think that, if NASA does complete a new solar sail project, it will travel to space probably in a Russian or private spacecraft.

I am having a hard time with the issue of "NASA's New Mission" I would like to condemn them and denote them as fools, but looking at the programs that our government "is" continuing to fund I am tempted to think that the comment was a ploy to encourage future support for NASA.

Robert said...

Each one of the periods in the comment from (Other Language Commentor) is a link and judging by the addresses listed they are links to chat-sites, porn sites, and other ilk of that nature, I suggest removal of the post.

This comment need not be posted.

Edward M. Lerner said...

Good catch, Robert. Thanks.

- Ed