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Russia initiates work on solar sail
Russian physicists embark upon the development of an innovative solar-sailing engine that could propel a future research mission to the Sun.
Previous chapter: Intergelio-Zond
Above: A 3D representation of a mission trajectory designed to slowly tilt the orbit of a hypothetical spacecraft above the Elliptic with the help of a solar sail.
Sun's power to unlock Sun's mysteries
The Russian Academy of Sciences allocated "seed" money for its Solar Physics department to study an exotic solar-propulsion system. The preliminary research phase of the project currently dubbed Solnechny Parus (Russian for "Solar Sail") aims to design a mission that could take advantage of the pressure from solar radiation to swing a research probe high above the Ecliptic (the plane where planets orbit the Sun). As a result, the instruments-laden spacecraft would be able to reach a unique vantage point above our Sun to reveal its polar areas in unprecedented detail. Solar-sailing propulsion was eyed for this mission as a promising technique to fly to this hard-to-reach destination within an available timeframe of five or seven years.
After departing Earth along a traditional Earth-escape trajectory, the probe would unfurl its sail and use the pressure of the solar wind to gradually spiral itself up, tilting its orbital plane as much as 75 degrees relative to the plane of the Ecliptic. Upon reaching the target orbit, the solar sail would be discarded.
Thanks to this unique position in space, the spacecraft with around 50 kilograms of scientific instruments would have the clearest view of the Sun's poles, which could help better understand our star's magnetic field and the mechanism of the solar cycles, as well as its influence on the Earth. The mission would also study the seismology of the Sun, solar wind, the radiation environment between the Earth and the Sun and various space weather phenomena.
Within the current Russian space program, the solar-sailing project is being positioned as a potential follow-on mission to the Intergelio-Zond spacecraft, which is currently scheduled for launch in 2022. The Intergelio-Zond's orbit would reach an inclination of around 30 degrees toward the Ecliptic. The solar-sailing spacecraft could also complement the Earth-orbiting missions aimed at the Sun, such as the ARKA solar telescope and the Kortes payload scheduled for deployment on the International Space Station, ISS.
The Solnechny Parus mission was inspired by the IKAROS solar-sailing experiment, which was launched by the Japanese space agency, JAXA, on May 21, 2010, toward Venus. It proved that solar sail could actually propel the spacecraft.
On a shoe-string budget
By October 2014, Russian scientists plan to come up with a general concept of a solar-sailing mission, to draft the basic architecture of the spacecraft and to formulate proposals for a set of scientific instruments onboard the future probe. In the following 12 months, the team would have to list all necessary technologies for the project and to propose the plan for their development.
Five leading organizations of the Russian space industry expressed interest to join the study of the solar-sailing mission, however the current budget of the project does not exceed a million rubles (approximately $28,000) for the next two years, keeping it at the very preliminary level. However, given the current timeline of the Russian planetary exploration program, work on the Solnechny Parus could help chart a possible roadmap toward future exploration projects. (710)
(To be continued)
Read about many other space developments in Russia
Preliminary specifications of the Solnechny Parus mission as of 2014:
Known participants in the Solnechny Parus project:
Page author: Anatoly Zak; last update: August 15, 2014
Page editor: Alain Chabot; last edit: August 15, 2014
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A painting depicting solar-sailing spacecraft once adorned the wall at the Mir space station's control room at the Russian mission control center. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak
Japan's ICAROS mission inspired the Russian solar-sailing project. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2010 Anatoly Zak