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Japan Successfully Deploys First Solar Sail In Space 284

Posted by timothy
from the beginner's-luck dept.
An anonymous reader writes "This morning the Japanese space agency, JAXA, successfully unfurled a solar sail in space for the first time. Solar sails offer the best hope for deep space exploration because they eliminate the need to carry fuel. The Japanese spacecraft IKAROS created centripetal force by spinning, allowing it to launch the 0.0003-inch-thick sail. While deployment is a challenge in a zero-gravity environment, spacecraft — unlike airplanes — don't have to contend with drag, so with each photon that hits the sail helps the spacecraft gather speed."
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Japan Successfully Deploys First Solar Sail In Space

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  • by History's Coming To (1059484) on Thursday June 10, 2010 @06:21PM (#32529202) Journal
    Jetpacks? No. Flying cars? No. Sentient robots? No.

    Solar sailing? Oh yes! I love this, it's one of the signals that we're living in the future, if you grew up on Clarke, Asimov et al. Required reading: Clarke's "A Wind From The Sun", Stross's "Accelerando".
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday June 10, 2010 @06:56PM (#32529604)

    Whats wrong with automated space flight with solar sails & Cryogenic sleep chambers? It's worked for Sci-fi movies.

    Brain damage?

    While most of the dogs were fine, a few of the revived dogs had severe nervous and movement coordination damage, causing them to be mentally disabled, and demonstrating behavior that was deemed "zombie" like. This has been pushed further by the media which named them "zombie dogs".[3] There is concern that this technique, if used on humans could result in brain damage similar to those suffered by some of the dogs in the experiment.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suspended_animation [wikipedia.org]

  • Thank you Slashdot. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by CrazyJim1 (809850) on Thursday June 10, 2010 @06:57PM (#32529618) Journal
    I want to hear stories like this. I want to know if Solar Sails are viable. Back in highschool I wondered about a space ship propulsion device. My theory was to make particle accelerators to get the maximum propulsion out of hydrogen atoms and fire them out the back of the craft. The problem was you could run out of hydrogen. Its not something serious, but just trying to figure out something better than rockets. The solar sail sounds like it is plausible, and I'll be excited to hear this story develop. The last thing I was excited about was the Mars Rovers. How cool were those.
  • Re:Focus (Score:2, Interesting)

    by sexconker (1179573) on Thursday June 10, 2010 @07:17PM (#32529846)

    Seems to me that the US and Russia (and the Germans working on both sides) did all of the leg work in the field.

    Seems to me a satellite, however fancy, is orders of magnitude simpler than manned space travel.

    Seems to me Japan doesn't exactly a military to waste money on, on account of that whole World War II thing. Or two current wars. Or failed banking and auto industries. Or morans who bought houses they couldn't afford. Or...

    Seems to me the US is shying away from public space exploration, while the private industry prepares to take over.

    You show a complete lack of understanding of the situation. You might as well post about how Japan has better residential internet speeds than the US.

  • by DowdyGoat (1830958) on Thursday June 10, 2010 @07:39PM (#32530100)

    NASA had a proposed "Interstellar Probe" mission that was to use a 200 meter diameter solar sail to travel 200 AU in 15 years (the heliosheath, or edge of the solar system, is about 100 AU from the Sun). It was thought they could keep contact until 400 AUs distance. Link (go to the Interstellar Probe Report link there):

    http://interstellar.jpl.nasa.gov/

    This mission, as well as a proposed follow up mission (I think called Interstellar Probe 2) that would have had a bigger sail, gone twice as fast, and reached around 1000 AU, were both shelved quite a while ago. (There was a single NASA page on that second mission a long time ago, but I cannot find it now.)

    You could use probes like these to sort of act as galactic weather probes, testing the interstellar space that our solar system would encounter in coming decades/centuries and seeing how that "interstellar weather" affects the Sun the the Earth's environment as we pass through it.

    A theoretical improvement on a solar sail would be a "light sail"--you could set up satellites with powerful laser systems orbiting the Sun and use that focused and powerful light to push sails much faster. Some folks have hypothesized reaching 10% to 30% the speed of light using techniques like this if the lasers were powerful enough and coordinated enough. Assuming success, you could possibly send an unmanned probe to Alpha Centauri in a matter of decades. In this instance, you could theoretically use a solar sail to use the solar wind/light of the Alpha Centauri system to slow down once you started nearing it (although that could potentially add more travel time).

    Things like these could be a relatively fast, cheap, and safe (as compared to nuclear) way to explore our external solar system (Kuiper Belt) and nearby interstellar space (Oort Cloud), and get a good handle on how our surrounding interstellar space affects our solar system. Very interesting stuff. I hope more of it happens!

  • Re:Commence Whining (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Nyeerrmm (940927) on Thursday June 10, 2010 @07:44PM (#32530152)

    It's a common theme -- but I think its a little misguided. It occurs to me that part of the problem is that NASA thinks of Apollo-level funding as the rule rather than the exception.

    Done right, we could do quite a bit with the current Human Spaceflight (HSF) budget. Given that the post-Apollo budget levels are relatively consistent, it seems that current funding level is the politically sustainable level, without external influences (i.e. Cold Wars). If there had been no space race, I can't help but think that NASA would be much better at doing impressive things on the HSF side on their more modest budget.

    $17B is a pretty good chunk of change, and the fact that its been increased despite an across-the-board budget cut on other non-defense discretionary spending shows that there is some significant support for it. We (the space community) tend to think of 1% GDP as the "correct" amount that should be spent on space exploration. Maybe if we get used to the idea that what we have now is closer to normal, we'll be much better off.

  • by Topwiz (1470979) on Thursday June 10, 2010 @08:08PM (#32530324)
    The book version of Planet of the Apes has one.
  • by Sir_Lewk (967686) <sirlewk@@@gmail...com> on Thursday June 10, 2010 @08:28PM (#32530512)

    I'll second that recommendation for Accelerando. That's the book that convinced me solar sails are way way cooler than chemical rockets.

    It's even available as a free ebook [antipope.org], though I of course recommend picking up a hard copy.

  • Re:Focus (Score:3, Interesting)

    by gstoddart (321705) on Thursday June 10, 2010 @11:21PM (#32531452) Homepage

    That's around 80 Hubble Space Telescopes.

    As true as those numbers are, it ignores the fact that without people going into space, Hubble would be floating up there blind as a bat.

    It may come to pass that we can put Really Complex Things up into space and have them work and stay working. For now, Hubble could never have happened without manned space flight.

    Besides, maybe it's because I'm old and have a romantic attachment to it, but I do think it's a shame that I both remember the beginning and the end of the Shuttle program. When the first ones launched, they used to stop classes and watch it live.

    I'm sure it is cheaper and safer. I just seems somehow, less cool. :(

    Oh, but kudos to the Japanese for deploying a frickin' solar sail!! That rocks! Go Team!

  • by TooMuchToDo (882796) on Friday June 11, 2010 @12:16AM (#32531740)
    Why not use magnetic fields to scoop hydrogen from in front of your craft and accelerate them out the back using a particle accelerator/cyclotron. This could be powered via solar near our/other suns, or nuclear RTGs further out. Similar to an ion drive, but without the need to carry the propellant.
  • Re:Focus (Score:3, Interesting)

    by sunspot42 (455706) on Friday June 11, 2010 @01:09AM (#32531998)

    Without wasting $200 billion sending men into space, Hubble could have been replaced 79 times over with, presumably, better telescopes. Or we'd have been able to easily afford one or two replacement craft, even better than Hubble, which built on its successes and (hopefully) improved upon its failures.

    Instead we've sunk $200 billion into the Shutles and another $100 billion plus into the ISS, to boldly sit where Skylab has sat before. Manned spaceflight has proven to be a colossal money sink with virtually no scientific returns. Imagine if we'd spent just a tenth of that money on our unmanned space program? You could quadruple the number of interplanetary probes and space telescopes we've launched and still have money to burn.

    You do realize the next generation of telescopes NASA plans to launch won't even be man-serviceable, since they're destined for Lagrange points and other destinations far outside low earth orbit?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 11, 2010 @02:21AM (#32532296)

    also the classic a mote in gods eye!

Facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable.

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