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Spring-loaded camera photographs IKAROS's deployed solar sail

Enlarge Image credit: JAXA MORE IMAGES

The Japanese space agency's attempt to sail a spacecraft between the planets in our solar system, pushed along by sunlight, is off to a good start. The Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation of the Sun (IKAROS), launched in May piggybacking on a Venus-bound space probe, successfully deployed its rectangular sail designed to harness the gentle but constant pressure exerted by photons striking the craft, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) announced June 11.

With the help of a detachable camera, JAXA has now photographed the deployed 14- by 14-meter solar sail in its entirety. On June 15, IKAROS released the spring-loaded camera module, a cylinder about six centimeters in diameter, which snapped a series of pictures of the larger craft as it drifted away. In a statement JAXA said it would continue to monitor IKAROS to verify that sunlight is indeed accelerating the craft. If the sail concept proves out, IKAROS could approach Venus in several months, becoming the first mission that achieves propulsion via a solar sail to cruise beyond Earth orbit.

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