IKAROS is currently happily accelerating through space via its solar sail, an incredible success for Japan's space program.  (Source: JAXA)

IKAROS shows steady acceleration (red ticks) after deployment of the sail.  (Source: JAXA)
NASA is yet again left behind in the space race

Once the U.S. led in the space race, exploring the moon and sending probes to distant stars.  Now that's far from the case, as funding to the U.S. space program has been cut and goals scaled back.  Fortunately, there are plenty of other innovative nations willing to step in and pick up the slack.

Japan last month launched the first full solar sail craft into space, transforming a science fiction dream into reality.  The craft, IKAROS, successfully deployed its solar sail.

Now the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency has updated the world on its progress.  The sail is performing extremely well, constantly accelerating, with every passing day.

Japanese researchers calculated that each photon striking the sail exerts 0.00025 pounds of force on the sail.  That force adds up slowly, speeding up the the 3,000 square foot sail and its attached 700-pound payload.

With the new Japanese success, solar sail look to become the new gold standard for deep space propulsion, until better technologies (plasma enginesnuclear engines) are more fully developed.  And the success is a sign of Japan's growing presence as a space pioneer.

Japan plans to land a robotic army on the moon, starting a few years from now.  In the private sector, the Planetary Society, a space research group, and Cosmos Studios of Ithaca, N.Y., headed by Ann Druyan, a film producer and widow of the late astronomer and author Carl Sagan, will launch the LightSail-1, another solar sail design, into space late this year.

"Google fired a shot heard 'round the world, and now a second American company has answered the call to defend the rights of the Chinese people." -- Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.)

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