Solar Sails   14 comments

Solar Sail Space Crafts


Space craft propelled directly by the power of sunlight (solar cells are indirect power).


Two projects are set for launch this year:-

  •   IKAROS – launched by Japanese Space Agency JAXA
  •   SOLARSAIL-1 by US based Planetary Society

(These are demonstrations to show that it can work, but they are very tiny!)

Solar Sail Craft Basics


Constructed from Gossamer – thin reflective sails capture photons

  •   Photons are packets of energy that make up sunlight

The sails gain momentum from the photons as they are reflected from their surface. Energy gained pushed the craft forwards gently. The force of sunlight is very little but this is fine as their CO2 acts against it in the vacuum of space.

Future sails could be made of nanotube mesh – 30 times lighter, and could increase acceleration dramatically.


Travel and Speeds

With the Sun set to shine for a good billion years or so yet, it can be considered an endless fuel supply therefore a Solar Sail Craft could in theory, reach speeds of hundreds of kilometres per hour making travel to Pluto a mere three years and to the outer limits of the Solar System years rather than decades. NASA’s Voyager craft took thirty years to reach these limits. A Solar Sail Craft launched today would pass it in ten years.

                                               voyager_1 voyager_2

Other Solar Sails

They would need sails 100m across and a boost from a large and unrealistically expansive laser system as the Sun’s energy decreases with distance. However laser-boosted systems could see a Solar Sail Craft travelling at speeds of up to 20% speed of light (60,000km/hr or 45,000mph) every second. This would make visiting neighbouring stars in our lifetime our best possibility.

Brief History

  1. Concept first proposed by German astronomer Johannes Kelper in seventeenth century
  2. 1862 Scottish physicist James Clark Maxwell discovers that light exerts a pressure on a surface.
  3. 1867 Jules Vernes suggests light pressure could provide a mechanical means of propulsion.

solarsail4. 1924 Russian scientist Fridrickh Arturovich Tsander wrote “For flight in Interplanetary Space I am working on the idea of flying using tremendous mirrors of very thin sheets capable of achieving favourable results.“

Mariner Probe

5. 1971 When NASA’s probe Mariner ran low on steering thrusters fuel en route to Venus engineers angled its solar panels into the Sun and used solar radiation pressure to steer it back on course.


6. 2005 Cosmos-1 a Solar Sail designed by US Planetary Society failed its test, due to rocket failure on launch vehicle, resulting in it being unable to reach its intended orbit.


7. 2008 NASA’s Nanosail-D mission, to test the Solar Sail’s deployment techniques. Lost during launch failure.

14 responses to “Solar Sails

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  1. its amazing how our minds need to learn more and more its never ending what can be achieved xxjen

  2. Europa Icewolf..A very Detailed & Most Interesting Read (Astrophysics – A Wicked Subject Me Thinks?) Here My Great Friend, Obviously Your Interests Cover A Wider Theme Base Than I Thought.. Thank You For Sharing This Knowledge As It Makes For A Pleasant Change From Some Of The Other Offerings Around Live Spaces.. Be Well Europa Icewolf..Androgoth XXx

  3. Europa Icewolf..I will call Back Later And Look Through Your Previous Blogs..Be Very Well My Great Friend.. Watch Out For Those Vampires Now..Androgoth XXx

  4. You are very so knowledgable, I can’t really think of anything sensible or clever to say about this blog. You leave me quite speechless. I think I need to sit down and have a cuppa and a choccie biscuit.

  5. With the recurring failure of current launch vehicles I’ve often wondered why the various space agencies haven’t tried using rail gun (electromagnetic) technology to launch unmanned space vehicles. The US Navy has successfully fired weaponized rail guns so the technology shouldn’t be all that hard to translate. Not only is the technology more reliable than chemical boosters, it’s also green. weapons system I worked with during my missile crew days, an armed Geminii space program launch vehicle, was liquid fueled. Both the fuel (unsymetricaldimethylhydrazine) and the oxidizer(nitrogen tetroxide) were extemely toxic and the exhaust plume generated during launch was just as toxic. Once our ICBMs were taken off strategic alert the missiles were used by NASA to launch various packages into orbit. minute ago | Delete

  6. Hi there my wolfie friend, all very interesting But………….. where is the wisdom in calling any flying machine Ikaros? Baring in mind what hapend to him when he flew too close to the sun!Love Suki xxx

  7. Suki Ikaros should have gone at night. Grooannn….

  8. another sci fi story becoming reality?. . . . . . .and it will fly through volcanic dust clouds . . . . ….

  9. Just to let you I is still ear :))…and that Capt. Sisko on DS9 and his son Jake built a sail craft and had a bit of an adventure…can’t recall what the sails were made of though…I lke to share these little gems of trvia with you AF EIW ;)) TEV LABW LABW xXx

  10. LOL Kenny xx

  11. :Book me on the first flight

  12. Each effort is a stepping stone, in the great visionary Carl Sagan’s words, along "the shore of the cosmic ocean,"leading us closer to sailing among the stars. Future attempts will surely take us the rest of the way. "’Twas all so pretty a sail it seemed As if it could not be, And some folks thought ’twas a dream they’d dreamed Of sailing that beautiful sea." (Eugene Field, 19th century poet.)

  13. How the seeds of crazy ideas gradually grow and become reality is amazing. Who was it who said: What the mnd of Man can conceive, Man can achieve (or words to that effect!) It’s all totally mind-boggling, and who knows what future generations will be developing and acheiving (if Man is still around to acheive anything at all, that is!)

  14. SandiThere are no horizons so distant that the human brain can not reach and pass beyond.

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