Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Japan to Launch Solar-Powered Spaceship

Could this be the start of greener space programs? Next month, Japan is launching a spacecraft powered by solar sails into deep space. The Ikaros, as the vessel has been dubbed, will take to the skies on May 18, 2010.

Ikaros stands for “Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation of the Sun.” The name is also a reference to the Greek myth of Icarus, a young man who, with his father Daedalus, attempted to escape exile in Crete by fashioning wings of feathers and wax. According to the myth, Icarus flew too close to the sun, and the heat melted the wax in his wings, causing him to plummet to his death. We certainly hope Ikarus the spaceship meets a happier fate when the rocket that carries it takes off from the Tanegashima Space Center.

Its creators call the Ikaros a “space yacht.” Its 46-foot sails are thinner than human hair; they will propel the vessel by harnessing the pressure of sunlight particles as they collide with the sails. The Ikarus is also outfitted will thin solar cells to help generate electricity.

“Solar sails are the technology that realizes space travel without fuel as long as we have sunlight,” said Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) spokesperson Yuichi Tsuda. “The availability of electricity would enable us to navigate farther and more effectively in the solar system.”

Solar sails have been tested in vacuum chambers by NASA in the past, but the agency failed to successfully deploy this technology. If successful, the Ikarus will be the first craft to use solar sails in space as a primary propulsion method.

This spacecraft has cost JAXA 1.5 billion yen (around $16 million) to build. The rocket that carries it into space will also launch Japan’s first satellite to Venus. JAXA’s upcoming plans also might include sending a robot to the moon by 2015 and building a robot-staffed lunar base by 2020 at a cost of 200 billion yen ($2 billion) between now and 2020.

By way of comparison, the cost of the Apollo project was $25.4 billion, as reported in 1973 (that’s around $175 billion now), and President George H.W. Bush-era NASA proposed a $400 billion Mars mission in 1989. NASA’s future lunar mission costs were projected at $104 billion for 13 years in 2005. Other proposed low-cost lunar missions have had estimated costs of around $10 billion.

Kudos to JAXA for creating an economical and relatively resource-friendly alternative to conventional methods of space exploration. We look forward to hearing more about the Ikarus’s mission in the weeks to come.