There's a new kind of spaceship on the horizon. No, it's not a cruise ship (we wish!) – it's a clipper, and if Joel Poncy and his team at Thales Alenia Space have their way, it's coming to a solar system near you. The Data Clipper will be a maneuverable solar-powered spacecraft that collects scientific data and downloads it to Earth, and fleets of them could map the planets and celestial bodies of our solar system.

The Clipper, equipped with tracking devices, would fly close to a planet or orbiting body and gather scientific data, and then download it to a ground station on Earth as it flies past. Poncy's team have assessed the requirements for such a craft and identified pointing accuracy and flyby conditions that would be faced during the massive terabyte data transfers.

“Space-rated flash memories will soon be able to store the huge quantities of data needed for the global mapping of planetary bodies in high resolution. But a full high-res map of, say, Europa or Titan, would take several decades to download from a traditional orbiter, even using very large antennae. Downloading data is the major design driver for interplanetary missions. We think that Data Clippers would be a very efficient way of overcoming this bottleneck,” said Poncy.

The spacecraft could also make use of solar sails which use radiation pressure from photons emitted by the sun.

“Using the Sun as a propulsion source has the considerable advantage of requiring no propellant on board," continued Poncy. "As long as the hardware doesn’t age too much and the spacecraft is maneuverable, the duration of the mission can be very long."

The Japanese Space Agency JAXA is currently testing the solar-sail-powered spacecraft IKAROS.

The team at Thales Alenia Space envisage a fleet of Data Clippers sailing round the solar system providing support for numerous missions. They also think it could be ready in time to support mid-term missions to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Poncy presented an assessment of data clippers at the European Planetary Science Congress (EPSC) 2010 in Rome this Monday.

“We have looked at the challenges of a data clipper mission and we think that it could be ready for a launch in the late 2020s. This means that the technology should be included now in the roadmap for future missions, and this is why we are presenting this study at EPSC,” said Poncy.