A delicate material that could let spacecraft reach distant planets by harnessing the Sun’s rays has been unfurled successfully in space for the first time.

The Japanese Institute of Space Astronautical Science tested two solar sail deployments launched aboard an S-310 rocket on 9 August. It is the first time a solar sail deployment has ever been tested in space.

By reflecting photons from Sun, the metallic solar sails should theoretically receive momentum in the opposite direction to propel a spacecraft forward. By gliding along, building up ever more speed, spacecraft should be able to reach distant space targets in record time.

But finding a material that can be unfurled to cover a large area while remaining lightweight and sturdy enough has proven difficult. The designs tested by the Japanese space agency employed a reflective polyimide resin only 0.0075 millimetres thick.

The Japanese rocket carrying the two sails was launched from Uchinoura Space Center in Kagoshima, southern Japan, at 1515 local time (0815GMT) on Monday.

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