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Solar sail

  Solar sails (also called light sails or photon sails, especially when they use light sources other than the Sun) are a proposed form of spacecraft propulsion using large membrane mirrors. Radiation pressure is small and decreases by the square of the distance from the light source (e.g. sun), but unlike rockets, solar sails require no reaction mass. Although the thrust is small, it continues as long as the light source shines and the sail is deployed. In theory a lightsail powered by an Earth-based laser can even be used to decelerate the spacecraft as it approaches its destination.

Solar collectors, temperature-control panels and sun shades are occasionally used as expedient solar sails, to help ordinary spacecraft and satellites make minor corrections to their attitude and orbit without using fuel. This conserves fuel that would otherwise be used for maneuvering and attitude control. A few have even had small purpose-built solar sails for this use. For example, EADS Astrium built Eurostar E3000 geostationary communications satellites use solar sail panels attached to their solar cell arrays to off-load transverse angular momentum, thereby saving fuel (angular momentum is accumulated over time as the gyroscopic momentum wheels control the spacecraft's attitude - this excess momentum must be offloaded to protect the wheels from overspin). Some unmanned spacecraft (such as Mariner 10[1]) have substantially extended their service lives with this practice.

The science of solar sails is well-proven, but the technology to manage large solar sails is still undeveloped. Mission planners are not yet willing to risk multimillion dollar missions on unproven solar sail unfolding and steering mechanisms. This neglect has inspired some enthusiasts to attempt private development of the technology, such as the Cosmos 1.

The concept was first proposed by German astronomer Johannes Kepler in the seventeenth century. It was again proposed by Friedrich Zander in the late 1920s and gradually refined over the decades. Recent serious interest in lightsails began with an article by engineer and science fiction author Robert L. Forward in 1984.


How they work

The spacecraft deploys a large membrane mirror which reflects light from the Sun or some other source. The radiation pressure on the mirror provides a minuscule amount of thrust by reflecting photons. Tilting the reflective sail at an angle from the Sun produces thrust at an angle normal to the sail. In most designs, steering would be done with auxiliary vanes, acting as small solar sails to change the attitude of the large solar sail (see the vanes on the illustration labeled Cosmos 1, below). The vanes would be adjusted by electric motors.[2]

In theory a lightsail driven by a laser or other beam from Earth can be used to decelerate a spacecraft approaching a distant star or planet, by detaching part of the sail and using it to focus the beam on the forward-facing surface of the rest of the sail.[3]

Sails orbit, and therefore do not need to hover or move directly toward or away from the sun. Almost all missions would use the sail to change orbit, rather than thrusting directly away from a planet or the sun. The sail is rotated slowly as the sail orbits around a planet so the thrust is in the direction of the orbital movement to move to a higher orbit or against it to move to a lower orbit. When an orbit is far enough away from a planet, the sail then begins similar maneuvers in orbit around the sun.[4]

The best sort of missions for a solar sail involves a dive near the sun, where the light is intense, and sail efficiencies are high. For this reason, most sails are designed to tolerate much higher temperatures than one might expect. Going close to the Sun may be done for different mission aims: for exploring the solar poles from a short distance, for observing the Sun and its near environment from a nonKeplerian circular orbit the plane of which may be shifted some solar radii, for flying-by the Sun such that the sail gets a very high speed. An unsuspected feature, until the first half of the Nineties, of the solar sail propulsion is to allow a sailcraft to escape the solar system with a cruise speed higher or even much higher than a spacecraft powered by a nuclear electric rocket system. The spacecraft mass to sail area ratio does not need to achieve ultra-low values, even though the sail should be an advanced all-metal sail. This flight mode is also known as the fast solar sailing. Proven mathematically (like many other astronautical items well in advance of their actual launches), such sailing mode has been considered by NASA/Marshall as one of the options for a future precursor interstellar probe (NASA/CR 2002-211730, the chapter IV) exploring the near interstellar space beyond the heliosphere.

Most theoretical studies of interstellar missions with a solar sail plan to push the sail with a very large laser Beam-powered propulsion Direct Impulse beam. The thrust vector (spatial)vector would therefore be away from the Sun and toward the target.

Limitations of solar sails

Solar sails don't work well, if at all, in low Earth orbit below about 800km altitude due to erosion or air drag.[5] Above that altitude they give very small accelerations that take months to build up to useful speeds. Solar sails have to be physically large, and payload size is often small. Deploying solar sails is also highly challenging to date.

Solar sails must face the sun to decelerate. Therefore, on trips aways from the sun, they must arrange to loop behind the outer planet, and decelerate into the sunlight.[6]

Some authorities have claimed that solar sails cannot go towards their light source. This is false. In particular, sails can go toward the sun by thrusting against their orbital motion. This reduces the energy of their orbit, spiraling the sail toward the sun.[7]

Investigated sail designs


"Parachutes" would have very low mass, but theoretical studies show that they will collapse from the forces placed by shrouds. Radiation pressure does not behave like aerodynamic pressure.[8]

The highest thrust-to-mass designs known (2007) were theoretical designs developed by Eric Drexler.[9] He designed a sail using reflective panels of thin aluminum film (30 to 100 nanometres thick) supported by a purely tensile structure. It rotated and would have to be continually under slight thrust. He made and handled samples of the film in the laboratory, but the material is too delicate to survive folding, launch, and deployment, hence the design relied on space-based production of the film panels, joining them to a deployable tension structure. Sails in this class would offer accelerations an order of magnitude higher than designs based on deployable plastic films.

The highest-thrust to mass designs for ground-assembled deployable structures are square sails with the masts and guy lines on the dark side of the sail. Usually there are four masts that spread the corners of the sail, and a mast in the center to hold guide wires. One of the largest advantages is that there are no hot spots in the rigging from wrinkling or bagging, and the sail protects the structure from the sun. This form can therefore go quite close to the sun, where the maximum thrust is present. Control would probably use small sails on the ends of the spars.

In the 1970s JPL did extensive studies of rotating blade and rotating ring sails for a mission to rendezvous with Halley's Comet. The intention was that such structures would be stiffened by their angular momentum, eliminating the need for struts, and saving mass. In all cases, surprisingly large amounts of tensile strength were needed to cope with dynamic loads. Weaker sails would ripple or oscillate when the sail's attitude changed, and the oscillations would add and cause structural failure. So the difference in the thrust-to-mass ratio was almost nil, and the static designs were much easier to control.

JPL's reference design was called the "heliogyro" and had plastic-film blades deployed from rollers and held out by centripetal forces as it rotated. The spacecraft's altitude and direction were to be completely controlled by changing the angle of the blades in various ways, similar to the cycle and collective pitch of a helicopter. Although the design had no mass advantage over a square sail, it remained attractive because the method of deploying the sail was simpler than a strut-based design.

JPL also investigated "ring sails" (Spinning Disk Sail in the above diagram), panels attached to the edge of a rotating spacecraft. The panels would have slight gaps, about one to five percent of the total area. Lines would connect the edge of one sail to the other. Weights in the middles of these lines would pull the sails taut against the coning caused by the radiation pressure. JPL researchers said that this might be an attractive sail design for large manned structures. The inner ring, in particular, might be made to have artificial gravity roughly equal to the gravity on the surface of Mars.

A solar sail can serve a dual function as a high-gain antenna. Designs differ, but most modify the metallization pattern to create a holographic monochromatic lens or mirror in the radio frequencies of interest, including visible light.

Current progress


NASA has successfully tested deployment technologies on small scale sails in vacuum chambers.[2]

No solar sails have been successfully deployed as primary propulsion systems, but research in the area is continuing. On August 9, 2004 Japanese ISAS successfully deployed two prototype solar sails from a sounding rocket. A clover type sail was deployed at 122 km altitude and a fan type sail was deployed at 169 km altitude. Both sails used 7.5 micrometer thick film.

A joint private project between Planetary Society, Cosmos Studios and Russian Academy of Science launched Cosmos 1 on June 21, 2005, from a submarine in the Barents Sea, but the Volna rocket failed, and the spacecraft failed to reach orbit. A solar sail would have been used to gradually raise the spacecraft to a higher earth orbit. The mission would have lasted for one month. A suborbital prototype test by the group failed in 2001 as well, also because of rocket failure.

A 15-meter-diameter solar sail (SSP, solar sail sub payload, soraseiru sabupeiro-do) was launched together with ASTRO-F on a M-V rocket on February 21, 2006, and made it to orbit. It deployed from the stage, but opened incompletely.[10]

Sail materials


The best known material is thought to be a thin mesh of aluminium with holes less than ½ the wavelength of most light. Nanometre-sized "antennas" would emit heat energy as infrared. Although samples have been created, it is too fragile to unfold or unroll with known technology.

The most common material in current designs is aluminized 2 µm Kapton film. It resists the heat of a pass close to the Sun and still remains reasonably strong. The aluminium reflecting film is on the Sun side. The sails of Cosmos 1 were made of aluminized PET film.

Research by Dr. Geoffrey Landis in 1998-9, funded by the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts, showed that various materials such as Alumina for laser lightsails and Carbon fiber for microwave pushed lightsails were superior sail materials to the previously standard aluminum or Kapton films.[11]

In 2000, Energy Science Laboratories developed a new carbon fiber material which might be useful for solar sails.[12] The material is over 200 times thicker than conventional solar sail designs, but it is so porous that it has the same weight. The rigidity and durability of this material could make solar sails that are significantly sturdier than plastic films. The material could self-deploy and should withstand higher temperatures.

There has been some theoretical speculation about using molecular manufacturing techniques to create advanced, strong, hyper-light sail material, based on nanotube mesh weaves, where the weave "spaces" are less than ½ the wavelength of light impinging on the sail. While such materials have as-of-yet only been produced in laboratory conditions, and the means for manufacturing such material on an industrial scale are not yet available, such materials could weigh less than 0.1 g/m²[13] making them lighter than any current sail material by a factor of at least 30. For comparison, 5 micrometre thick Mylar sail material weighs 7 g/m², aluminized Kapton films weighs up to 12 g/m²,[14] and Energy Science Laboratories' new carbon fiber material weighs in at 3g/m².[12]


Robert Forward proposed the use of lasers to push solar sails, providing beam-powered propulsion. Given a sufficiently powerful laser and a large enough mirror to keep the laser focused on the sail for long enough, a solar sail could be accelerated to a significant fraction of the speed of light. To do so, however, would require the engineering of massive, precisely-shaped optical mirrors or lenses (wider than the Earth for interstellar transport), incredibly powerful lasers, and more power for the lasers than humanity currently generates.

A potentially easier approach would be to use a maser to drive a "solar sail" composed of a mesh of wires with the same spacing as the wavelength of the microwaves, since the manipulation of microwave radiation is somewhat easier than the manipulation of visible light. The hypothetical "Starwisp" interstellar probe design would use a maser to drive it. Masers spread out more rapidly than optical lasers thanks to their longer wavelength, and so would not have as long an effective range.

Masers could also be used to power a painted solar sail, a conventional sail coated with a layer of chemicals designed to evaporate when struck by microwave radiation.[15] The momentum generated by this evaporation could significantly increase the thrust generated by solar sails, as a form of lightweight ablative laser propulsion.

To further focus the energy on a distant solar sail, designs have considered the use of a large zone plate. This would be placed at a location between the laser or maser and the spacecraft. The plate could then be propelled outward using the same energy source, thus maintaining its position so as to focus the energy on the solar sail.

Spacecraft fitted with solar sails can also be placed in close orbits about the Sun that are stationary with respect to either the Sun or the Earth, a type of satellite called a statite. This is possible because the propulsion provided by the sail offsets the gravitational potential of the Sun. Such an orbit could be useful for studying the properties of the Sun over long durations.

Such a spacecraft could conceivably be placed directly over a pole of the Sun, and remain at that station for lengthy durations. Likewise a solar sail-equipped spacecraft could also remain on station nearly above the polar terminator of a planet such as the Earth by tilting the sail at the appropriate angle needed to just counteract the planet's gravity. Additionally, it has been theorized by da Vinci Project contributor T. Pesando that solar sail-utilizing spacecraft successful in interstellar travel could be used to carry their own zone plates or perhaps even masers to be deployed during flybys at nearby stars. Such an endeavour could allow future solar-sailed craft to effectively utilize focused energy from other stars rather than from the Earth or Sun, thus propelling them more swiftly through space and perhaps even to more distant stars. However, the potential of such a theory remains uncertain if not dubious due to the high-speed precision involved and possible payloads required.

Future Visions

Despite the loss of Cosmos 1 (which was due to a failure of the launcher), scientists and engineers around the world remain encouraged and continue to work on solar sails. While most direct applications created so far intend to use the sails as inexpensive modes of cargo transport, some scientists are investigating the possibility of using solar sails as a means of transporting humans. This goal is strongly related to the management of very large (i.e. well above 1 km²) surfaces in space and the sail making advancements. Thus, in the near/medium term, solar sail propulsion is aimed chiefly at accomplishing a very high number of non-crewed missions in any part of the solar system and beyond.

Solar sails in fiction


  • Sunjammer by Arthur C. Clarke, a short story (in The Wind from the Sun anthology) describing a solar sail craft Earth-Moon race. It was originally published under the name "Sunjammer" but when Clarke learned of the short story of the same name by Poul Anderson, he quickly changed it.
  • Dust of Far Suns, by Jack Vance, also published as Sail 25, depicts a crew of space cadets on a training mission aboard a malfunction-ridden solar sail craft.
  • The Mote in God's Eye (1975) by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle depicts an interstellar alien spacecraft driven by laser-powered light sails.
  • Rocheworld by Robert L. Forward, a novel about an interstellar mission driven by laser-powered light sails.
  • In the movie Tron, the characters Tron, Flynn and Yori are using a computer model of a solar sailer to escape from the MCP.
  • Solar sails appeared in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, in which Count Dooku has a combination hyperdrive and starsail spacecraft dubbed the Solar Sailer.
  • In the film Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, an officer aboard a crippled spaceship discusses a plan to construct a solar sail to take his ship to the nearest port.
  • A solar sail appears in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Explorers", as the primary propulsion system of the "Bajoran solar-sail vessel". The vessel inadvertently exceeds the speed of light by sailing on a stream of tachyons.
  • The Lady Who Sailed The Soul by Cordwainer Smith, a short story (part of The Rediscovery Of Man collection) describing journeys on solar sail craft.
  • In David Brin's Heaven's Reach, sentient machines are using solar sails to harvest carbon from a red giant star's atmosphere to repair a Dyson Sphere-like construct.
  • The book Accelerando by Charles Stross depicts a solar sail craft powered by a series of very powerful lasers being used to contact alien intelligences outside of our solar system.
  • The GSX-401FW Stargazer, a primarily unmanned Gundam mobile suit from the Cosmic Era timeline of the Gundam Seed metaseries, employs a propulsion system dubbed "Voiture Lumière" which utilizes a nano-particle solar sail.
  • The R.L.S. Legacy, seen in the Disney movie "Treasure Planet", was powered entirely by solar sails.
  • A solar sail appears in an early episode of the most recent incarnation of "The Outer Limits" (season one, "The Message").[16] The description refers to it as a planet, perhaps to avoid being a "spoiler".
  • The 1983 Doctor Who serial Enlightenment depicts a race through the solar system using solar sail ships.
  • 1985 Japanese Original Video Animation title 'Odin - Photon Space Sailer Starlight', directed by Eiichi Yamamoto and Takeshi Shirado, features a space ship that travels on beams of light, with its massive sails, over great distances in space.
  • The 2006 science-fiction novel Le Papillon Des Étoiles (lit. The Butterfly Of The Stars), by Bernard Werber, tells the story of a community of humans who escape from Earth and set off towards a new habitable planet aboard a large spaceship pulled by a gigantic solar sail (one million square kilometers large when deployed).


Critics of the solar sail argue that solar sails are impractical for orbital and interplanetary missions because they move on an indirect course. However, when in Earth orbit, the majority of mass on most interplanetary missions is taken up by fuel. A robotic solar sail could therefore multiply an interplanetary payload by several times by reducing this significant fuel mass, and create a reusable, multimission spacecraft. Most near-term planetary missions involve robotic exploration craft, in which the directness of the course is unimportant compared to the fuel mass savings and fast transit times of a solar sail. For example, most existing missions use multiple gravitational slingshots to reduce necessary fuel mass, in order to save transit time at the cost of directness of the route.

There is also a misunderstanding that solar sails capture energy primarily from the solar wind high speed charged particles emitted from the sun. These particles would impart a small amount of momentum upon striking the sail, but this effect would be small compared to the force due to radiation pressure from light reflected from the sail. The force due to light pressure is about 5000 times as strong as that due to solar wind. A much larger type of sail called a magsail would employ the solar wind.

Technical Criticism of Solar Sail Concept

It has been proposed that momentum exchange from reflection of photons is an unproven effect that may violate the thermodynamical Carnot rule. This criticism was raised by Thomas Gold of Cornell, leading to a public debate in the spring of 2003.[17] This criticism has been refuted by Benjamin Diedrich pointing out that the Carnot Rule does not apply to an open system. Further explanation of lab results demonstrating is provided. [3] James Oberg has also refuted Dr. Gold's analysis: "But ‘solar sailing’ isn’t theoretical at all, and photon pressure has been successfully calculated for all large spacecraft. Interplanetary missions would arrive thousands of kilometers off course if correct equations had not been used. The effect for a genuine ‘solar sail’ will be even more spectacular."[4]

Another alleged solution is that when reflected by a solar sail, a photon undergoes a Doppler shift; its wavelength increases (and energy decreases) by a factor dependent on the velocity of the sail, transferring energy from the sun-photon system to the sail.[citation needed]

See also

  • Fast solar sailing
  • Magnetic sail
  • Electric sail
  • Cosmos 1
  • Spacecraft propulsion
  • optical tweezers


  1. ^ [1]NASA's Mariner 10 Mission Description
  2. ^ Jerome Wright, Space Sailing, Gordon and Breach Science Publishers, 1992., chapter 1
  3. ^ Forward, R.L. (1984). "Roundtrip Interstellar Travel Using Laser-Pushed Lightsails". J Spacecraft 21 (2): 187-195.
  4. ^ Wright, ibid., chapter 2
  5. ^ Launchloop's discussion of launch altitudes
  6. ^ Wright, ibid. pg 15, 'Braking by Solar Pressure'
  7. ^ Wright, ibid, chapter 2
  8. ^ Wright, ibid., p71, last para
  9. ^ Drexler, K.E., (1977) Design of a High Performance Solar Sail System, MS Thesis, Dept. of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Massachusetts Institute of Techniology, Boston
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^ a b
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^
  • Space Sailing by Jerome L. Wright, who was involved with JPL's effort to use a solar sail for a rendezvous with Halley's comet.
  • Solar Sailing, Technology, Dynamics and Mission Applications - [Colin R. McInnes] presents the state of the art in his book.
  • NASA/CR 2002-211730, the chapter IV - [5] presents the theory and the optimal NASA-ISP trajectory via the H-reversal sailing mode
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Solar_sail". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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