By Patricia Daukantas
Future mapping missions to the Sun’s outer planets may generate terabytes of data that must be shipped back to Earth. A French aerospace company has proposed a new type of solar-sailing “clipper ships” to bring those data to ground-based scientists.
Joel Poncy and colleagues at Thales Alenia Space (Cannes and Toulouse, France) described the idea of interplanetary “data clippers” at this week’s meeting of the European Planetary Science Congress in Rome, Italy.
The high-resolution camera systems that could be sent to Jupiter, Saturn and their moons aboard spacecraft now in the planning stages could collect many terabytes of data. The French team estimates that a full map of Ganymede (one of Jupiter’s large moons) could take decades with today’s onboard antenna technology and the Square Kilometer Array, a radio telescope planned for the Southern Hemisphere.
According to Poncy’s plan, communications satellites equipped with solar sails would fly close to a planetary orbiter, upload its data, then fly by Earth and drop off the data at one of our ground stations. Solar sails would enable the small communications craft to fly without onboard propellant. Here is an artist’s impression of the concept (interplanetary distances are obviously shorter than in real life).
The Japanese Space Agency, also known as JAXA, is currently testing a solar sail mission called IKAROS, which was launched in May.
2010-09 September, Miscellaneous Optics