Not long ago, we reported on a sci-fi-esque scheme from Japan to outfit the moon with a giant belt of solar panels. Now, we’re reporting on science fact: JAXA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, has launched what is believed to be the world’s first solar-powered spacecraft, IKAROS.

IKAROS is a Japanese acronym for Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun. That’s right, this craft is actually sailing through space, propelled by nothing more than solar radiation. On June 11th, 2010, the craft managed to unfurl its sail, according to Physorg, by spinning rapidly in space, spinning the sail out by centrifugal force. The sail is an aluminized plastic membrane only 0.0075 mm thick and covered with thin-film solar cells; when photons of light reflect off the sail, they transfer their forward momentum to the sail, pushing the attached spacecraft forward. Dust sensors keep the sail clear of debris and steering devices keep it adjusted towards the angle of the sun.

image via Physorg

IKAROS, remarkably, uses no other power source but the sun, making it an ideal candidate for long-term space travel. This prototype was designed as a demonstration craft, developed to test whether or not the solar sail can work as intended by setting the craft on course towards Venus. After passing Venus in six months’ time, the craft is expected to to travel the far side of the sun, arriving in 2013.

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