Humankind's dream of exploring the solar system
In the 15th century, navigators at Cape Roca of Portugal ventured out in sailing vessels onto a voyage into the uncharted vastness stretching out to the west, opening up the age of Exploration. In the 20th century, humankind launched into space with rockets. Initial orbits around the earth were followed by trips to the Moon, Venus and Mars, and now on to the outer planets. This marked the start of the space age.
Now into the 21st century, over 50 years after humankind first traveled into space, our technology has dramatically advanced. Missions to explore the solar system are growing ever more ambitious and enterprising. Following the Cassini mission whose probe reached Saturn's Titan moon in 2005, many probes are flying toward celestial bodies in the solar system. Just like the navigators of yesteryear who launched their ships into vast uncharted expanses, humankind is now embarking on the age of solar system exploration, with boundless space as the stage.
Click to enlarge image
Japan's space development projects, stacking up world-first achievements
On June 13th 2010, the asteroid probe Hayabusa returned to Earth, completing a difficult journey that lasted seven years. The sight of the probe briefly lighting up the Australian night sky as it returned with its precious cargo moved a lot of people.
Hayabusa, which was launched on May 9, 2003, is a probe that was developed for the extremely challenging purpose of collecting and returning to Earth samples from the Itokawa asteroid, which would be a world first. It accomplished numerous world-first missions, including touchdown on an asteroid in 2005, Earth swing-by using ion engines, a rendez-vous with an asteroid through an autonomous guidance and navigation, and capsule recovery overcoming a fiery return into the Earth's atmosphere at the extremely high speed of 12 km/second. This string of accomplishments drew attention from around the world.
Now, two ambitious missions are currently in progress: Akatsuki and IKAROS. Akatsuki is Japan's first Venus probe as well as being the world's first planetary climate orbiter. Akatsuki's main mission is to observe and investigate the atmospheric phenomena of Venus, which is often called Earth's sister planet owing to its resemblance to our planet, in order to collect data that will deepen our understanding of the Earth's atmosphere.
IKAROS, on the other hand, is a small solar power sail demonstrator that is traveling through space by deploying a sail made of an ultra-thin membrane. The pressure of sunlight particles exerted on the sail propels the probe, and solar cells attached to parts of the membrane generate electricity, another world first. This demonstration aims to show the feasibility of deep space exploration missions that do not use fuel and instead use hybrid propulsion via a solar sail combined with an ion engine that uses generated electric power.
The busy lineup of upcoming space development projects includes the MMO (Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter) project, a joint project between Japan and Europe, for which the aim is to perform observation from the orbit of Mercury around 2015, the Hayabusa 2 project, which will aim for a new primordial asteroid and make full use of the lessons learned from Hayabusa, the SELENE-2 project for landing on the moon, and the MELOS project, for which the aim is to comprehensively investigate Mars. Another ambitious project being planned for sometime around 2020 will be the “powered solar sail,” which will use a solar sail equipped with large membrane solar cells that will open the way to travel to Jupiter and the mysterious Trojan group of asteroids.
NEC's technologies contributing to the age of solar system exploration
Under the guidance of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), NEC has been involved in the development and application of the latest space technologies. The list is a long one: ion engines, sensors, computers, and communication systems for Hayabusa. cameras for detailed observation of Venus and a new type of flat antenna for Akatsuki. the overall satellite system and compact sub-systems for IKAROS. NEC is responsible for total system development, operation, and testing for each one of these projects.
Aiming for an age when humankind will be able to freely travel about the solar system, NEC will further refine its original technologies as it continues to contribute to space development as a leading company toward the age of solar system exploration.