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Sailing the Solar System

Artist’s illustration of the data clipper concept

An artist’s illustration of the data clipper concept, with solar sail-powered spacecraft continually circling through the Solar System, receiving and delivering data from planetary probes.

A new golden age of sailing may be about to begin…in space. Future missions to explore the outer planets could employ fleets of ‘data-clippers’—manoeuvrable spacecraft equipped with solar sails—to ship vast quantities of scientific data to back Earth.

Although the memory capacities of spacecraft have increased dramatically over the decades, “a full high-res map of, say, Europa or Titan, would take several decades to download from a traditional orbiter, even using very large antennae,” says Joel Poncy of the Thales Alenia Space company, who undertook a study of the concept.

The concept is for a “clipper”—propelled along by the gentle pressure of the Sun’s solar wind— to pass close to a spacecraft investigating another planet, upload its data, and then fly back past Earth, at which point terabytes of data could be downloaded to a ground station.

“Downloading data is the major design driver for interplanetary missions,” adds Poncy. “We think that data clippers would be a very efficient way of overcoming this bottleneck.”

IKAROS spacecraft

The Japanese IKAROS spacecraft, launched on May 21, 2010, is testing solar sail propulsion.

A fleet of data clippers continually cruising around the Solar System could provide support for an entire suite of planetary missions.

The technology could be ready in time to support missions planned to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

The Japanese Space Agency, JAXA, is currently testing a solar sail mission called IKAROS.

“Using the Sun as a propulsion source has the considerable advantage of requiring no propellant on board,” says Poncy. “The use of data clippers could lead to a valuable downsizing of exploration missions and lower ground operation costs—combined with a huge science return.”

The orbiting spacecraft would still download some samples of their data directly to Earth to enable real-time discoveries and interactive mission operations.

But the bulk of the data is less urgent and is often processed by scientists much later. Data clippers could provide an economy delivery service from the outer Solar System, over and over again, Poncy says.

Adapted from information issued by Europlanet / Thales Alenia Space.

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