6 August 2010, JellyBean @ 7:18 pm

Japan’s solar sail – a sun-powered spacecraft launched in May – has successfully steered by using just the pressure of sunlight against its square polymer sail, Japan space officials said.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency spacecraft Ikaros now represents the first solar sail to have harnessed sunlight for both attitude control and propulsion, after it first launched May 21 alongside the Venus-bound orbiter Akatsuki.

Liquid crystal panels on the edges of the sail can change their surface reflection of sunlight by using low amounts of electricity to turn on or off. The “on” setting creates a mirror-like reflection that pushes the spacecraft forward, while the “off” setting has a more diffuse reflection that redirects the pressure of sunlight in all directions, lessening the force against the sail.

That allows Ikaros to slowly change direction based upon the different pressures of sunlight reflecting from its edges. Mission controllers have to account for the solar sail’s spin rate, distance to the sun and the sun angle to plot the spacecraft’s course.

An almost day-long test of the steering took place between the early morning hours of July 13 and July 14. Mission controllers achieved more than 90 percent of their expected attitude control angle.

Read more: Space.com

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