How sunlight powers free-flying satellites through interplanetary space

February 4th, 2011 - 5:51 pm ICT by ANI  

London, Feb 4 (ANI): Demonstrations have finally confirmed that radiation from sunlight can power spacecraft through interplanetary space.

Two trials of spacecraft, one on 20th Jan and another on 26th Jan, successfully used photons from the Sun to propel themselves at high speeds.

The two crafts were the small lightweight spacecraft NanoSail-D and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA) IKAROS.

“Both of these are very good technological advances and help give confidence to solar sailing,” Nature quoted Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary

Society, a non-profit organization for space-based research based in Pasadena, California, as saying.

Unlike other fuels, solar power is unlimited. And because they experience no friction, solar sails build up a great deal of thrust. Within a few months, the

spacecraft should slow sufficiently to re-enter and burn up.

The technology could one day be attached to decommissioned satellites to slow them down and assist in de-orbiting, said Dean Alhorn, an engineer at NASA’s

Marshal Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and principal investigator of the NanoSail-D mission.

The demonstrations have confirmed the workability of solar-sail technology.

“I think we understand solar sails and how they operate much better now,” said Alhorn.

Both space agencies are now considering the next steps for the technology. Alhorn is designing Feathersail, which would have a total sail area of 162 square

metres and fly beyond low-Earth orbit. After IKAROS, JAXA plans to build a 50-metre-diameter sail that would launch in the late 2010s and cruise to Jupiter and

the Trojan asteroids.

Solar sails could also be used in future as a fleet that orbits between Earth and the Sun, monitoring electromagnetic eruptions such as solar flares, said John

West, an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

They could also be placed in high Earth orbit to aid in communication and imaging and be repositioned whenever necessary, says Alhorn.

“There’s a niche for solar sails and it’s there for the taking,” West concluded. (ANI)

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