Thin Film Solar Sails Deployed in Space

A new stage in space exploration may be on the way. Japan’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS), a division of Japan’s Aerospace Development Agency said they succeeded in deploying a large thin film “solar sail.” The space agency said this is the first time large sections of a thin-film sail have been successfully deployed in this fashion and could spark a revolution in solar-aided space travel.

Kagoshima, Japan – August 12, 2004 [] The ISAS launched a small rocket S-310-34 from Uchinoura Space Center in Kagoshima, Japan, at 17:15, August 9, 2004 (Japan Standard Time), containing the solar sail which has now been successfully deployed in space. Although both scientists and science-fiction authors have long foreseen it, no solar sail has ever been deployed until now, according to the ISAS. Because it carries no fuel and keeps accelerating over almost unlimited distances, the institute believes it is the only technology now in existence that can one day take mankind to the stars. “The launch was the culmination of a historic new technology, and the success this time has really made a great achievement in the history of solar sail,” said the ISAS in a statement. Solar sail technology achieves space-based propulsion entirely independent of chemical rocket engines (after escaping Earth’s gravitational pull). Varying types of solar photovoltaics have been used in space-based applications for years, but this process is not based on creating electricity from solar. It’s based on a much more simple premise: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. In the vacuum of space, light photons impacting a very large surface area have the ability to push, or create a “bounce effect”, that pushes the sail the opposite direction just as wind pushes a sailboat on the surface of the earth. The S-310 rocket, which was launched from Uchinoura Space Center at 15:15 August 9, 2004, carried two different solar sails each with a thickness of 7.5 micrometers. A clover type deployment was started at 100 seconds after liftoff at 122 km altitude, and a fan type deployment was started at 169 km altitude at 230 seconds after liftoff, following the jettison of the clover type system. According to the ISAS Both experiments of two types deployment were successful, and the delivery rocket splashed down to sea roughly 400 seconds after liftoff. These large solar sail deployments are not the first time thin-film sails have made it into space, according to ISAS. On February 4, 1993, a two meter thin film structure onboard Progress M-15 was deployed for the first time in the solar sail development history. And in 2001, the Cosmos 1 test spacecraft was launched from a submerged Russian submarine, but the command for the spacecraft did not function, and the solar sail experiment by this sub-orbital flight was not successfully carried out. This experiment was done by the Planetary Society and the Cosmos Studio who are going to launch a Voina missile in a few months from a Russian nuclear submarine to carry out what would be the first complete solar sail craft. The spacecraft is now being built in Russia by the Babakin Space Center and the Space Research Institute. The spacecraft will begin the mission in a near circular orbit, 800 kilometers above the Earth, and gradually increase its altitude by means of photonic pressure on its luminous sails. The goal of Cosmos 1 is to achieve a controlled solar sail flight, demonstrating the feasibility of solar sail propulsion. JAXA is now planning to launch the next deployment experiment onboard a large scientific balloon from Sanriku Balloon Center this fall.