This is what a solar sail looks like in space. The images below were taken by a camera flown aboard the IKAROS mission and then separated from it using a spring, according to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

These pictures (and you can find several more here) take me back to my first reading of Cordwainer Smith’s ‘The Lady Who Sailed the Soul,’ in which a far future sail mission involving a sail tens of thousands of kilometers across plays against the tangled relationship of two lives (full text here). IKAROS may be far smaller, but if seeing a deployed sail in space doesn’t fire the imagination, what will? A brief snippet from the story:

The first sailors had gone out almost a hundred years before. They had started with small sails not over two thousand miles square. Gradually the size of the sails increased. The technique of adiabatic packing and the carrying of passengers in individual pods reduced the damage done to the human cargo. It was great news when a sailor returned to Earth, a man born and reared under the light of another star. He was a man who had spent a month of agony and pain, bringing a few sleep-frozen settlers, guiding the immense light-pushed sailing craft which had managed the trip through the great interstellar deeps in an objective time-period of forty years.

“The Lady Who Sailed the Soul” was published in Galaxy‘s April, 1960 issue, and still has a prized place on my shelf, along with all the other Galaxy issues of that era. If you haven’t yet made the acquaintance of Cordwainer Smith (Paul Linebarger), I envy you. Not only did he lead an unusual life (scholar, diplomat, spy and successful author), but the images he created with his words offer up a far future that is at once alien and deeply human. I wish he could have seen these pictures.

IKAROS will now be used to measure the effect of photon pressure from the Sun even as the spacecraft team examines the effectiveness of the thin film solar cells built into the sail. Just how navigable will IKAROS turn out to be, and how much can it teach us about future sail deployment and operations? We learn more day by day as this extraordinary mission continues.