I’m also filing this one under “Real Space” because this kite is really out there.
Ordinary Earthbound kites use air currents and wind to stay aloft. There’s no air in space, but there is a kind of wind–solar wind, caused by a steady stream of charged particles shooting out of the Sun. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, JAXA, has just launched a craft that uses the solar wind to accelerate. They call it a solar-sailed “space yacht” but it sure looks like a space kite to me.
The kite is 66 feet (diagonally) across and only the width of a human hair. In addition to being a sail, it also uses thin-film solar cells to generate the electricity needed for ion-gas propulsion. It’s a hybrid vehicle! This system is supposed to allow the kite to reach the edge of the Solar System in about 5 years, compared to traditional rocket-propelled craft like Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, which took about 25 years to make the same trip.
This first test kite is named Ikaros after the mythological boy who flew too close to the Sun and got burned up, presumably because solar sails constantly accelerate away from the Sun out of fear for their lives. Then again, if sailboats can tack into the wind, can the same be done to navigate solar sails inward from the outer edge of the Solar System back to Earth? Like, say, if a ship of squidlike aliens needed to find their way to Earth from the orbit of Saturn? Hmm…