Physics of Solar Sails
The radiation pressure from the photons striking a sail provides a small amount of thrust. Gathered across a large area, this thrust can provide significant acceleration. Over time, this acceleration can build considerable speed.
Changing course can be accomplished in two ways. First, the sail can allow gravity from a nearby mass, such as a star or planet, to alter its direction. Second, the sail can tilt away from the light source. This changes the direction of acceleration because any force applied to a sail's plane pushes at an angle perpendicular to its surface. Smaller auxiliary vanes can be used to gently pull the main sail into its new position (see the vanes on the illustration labeled Cosmos 1, above).
Escaping Planetary Orbit
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. In practice, however, most of the deceleration would happen while the two parts are at a great distance from each other, and that means that, to do that focusing, it would be necessary to give the detached part an accurate optical shape and orientation.
Limitations of solar sails
Solar sails don't work well, if at all, in low Earth orbit below about 800 km altitude due to erosion or air drag. 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 away from the sun, they must arrange to loop behind the outer planet, and decelerate into the sunlight.
There is a common misunderstanding 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, see Tack (sailing).
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.
The highest thrust-to-mass designs known (2007) were theoretical designs developed by Eric Drexler. 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 centrifugal 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. Masses 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.
Pekka Janhunen from FMI has invented a type of solar wind sail called the electric solar wind sail. It has little in common with the solar wind sail design externally, because the sails are substituted with straightened conducting tethers (wires) which are placed radially around the host ship. The wires are electrically charged and thus an electric field is created around the wires. The electric field of the wires extends a few tens of metres into the surrounding solar wind plasma. Because the solar wind electrons react on the electric field similarly as on a concrete solar wind sail, the function radius of the wires is based on the electric field that is generated around the wire rather than the actual wire itself. This fact also makes it possible to maneuver a ship with electric solar wind sail by regulating the electric charge of the wires. A full-sized functioning electric solar wind sail would have 50-100 straightened wires with a length of about 20 km each.
Sail testing in space
NASA has successfully tested deployment technologies on small scale sails in vacuum chambers.
No solar sails have been successfully used in space as primary propulsion systems, but research in the area is continuing. It is noteworthy that both the Mariner 10 mission, which flew by the planets Mercury and Venus, and the MESSENGER mission to Mercury demonstrated use of solar pressure as a method of attitude control, in order to conserve attitude-control propellant.
On February 4, 1993, Znamya 2, a 20-meter wide aluminized-mylar reflector, was successfully tested from the Russian Mir space station. Although the deployment test was successful, the experiment only demonstrated the deployment, not propulsion. A second test, Znamaya 2.5, failed to deploy properly.
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. The experiment was purely a test of the deployment mechanisms, not of propulsion.
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.
A team from the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center (Marshall), along with a team from the NASA Ames Research Center, developed a solar sail mission called NanoSail-D which was lost in a launch failure aboard a Falcon 1 rocket on 3 August 2008. The primary objective of the mission had been to test sail deployment technologies. The spacecraft might not have returned useful data about solar sail propulsion, according to Edward E. Montgomery, technology manager of Solar Sail Propulsion at Marshall, "The orbit available to us in this launch opportunity is so low, it may not allow us to stay in orbit long enough for solar pressure effects to accumulate to a measurable degree." The NanoSail-D structure was made of aluminum and plastic, with the spacecraft massing less than 10 pounds (4.5 kg). The sail has about 100 square feet (9.3 m) of light-catching surface.
The material developed for the efficient Drexler solar sail was a thin mesh of aluminium with holes less than one half the wavelength of most light. Nanometre-sized "antennas" would emit heat energy as infrared. Although Drexler created samples, they were 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 (Mylar).
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 aluminium or Kapton films.
In 2000, Energy Science Laboratories developed a new carbon fiber material which might be useful for solar sails. The material is over 200 times thicker than conventional solar sail designs, but it is so porous that it has the same mass. 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 half the wavelength of light impinging on the sail. While such materials have so far only been produced in laboratory conditions, and the means for manufacturing such material on an industrial scale are not yet available, such materials could mass less than 0.1 g/m², making them lighter than any current sail material by a factor of at least 30. For comparison, 5 micrometre thick Mylar sail material mass 7 g/m², aluminized Kapton films have a mass as much as 12 g/m², and Energy Science Laboratories' new carbon fiber material masses 3g/m².
Robert L. Forward pointed out that a solar sail could be used to modify the orbit of a satellite around the Earth. In the limit, a sail could be used to "hover" a satellite above one pole of the Earth. Spacecraft fitted with solar sails could 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 named by Forward 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.
In The Flight of the Dragonfly, Forward described a light sail propelled by superlasers. As the starship neared its destination, the outer portion of the sail would detach. The outer sail would then refocus and reflect the lasers back onto a smaller, inner sail. This would provide breaking thrust to stop the ship in the destination star system.
Both methods pose monumental engineering challenges. The lasers would have to continuously operate for years at gigawatt strength. Second, they would demand more energy than the Earth currently consumes. Third, Forward's own solution to the electrical problem requires enormous solar panel arrays to be built at or near the planet Mercury. Fourth, a planet-sized mirror or fresnel lens would be needed several dozen AU's from the Sun to keep the lasers focused on the sail. Fifth, the giant breaking sail would have to act as a precision mirror to focus the breaking beam onto the inner "deceleration" sail.
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. 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.
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.
Another more physically realistic approach would be to use the light from the home star to accelerate. The ship would first orbit continuously away around the home star until the appropriate starting velocity is reached, then the ship would begin its trip away from the system using the light from the star to keep accelerating. Once it was too far away from the star to keep using its light the ship would still continue on its journey using the physics of Newton's Laws of Motion that a moving object will continue at the same velocity unless an equal and opposite force reacts on it. That opposite force would be the target star which when the ship approaches it, would turn the sails toward it and begin to orbit inward to decellerate. Additional forward and reverse thrust could be achieved with more conventional means of propulsion such as rockets.
Despite the losses of Cosmos 1 and NanoSail-D (which were due to failure of their launchers), 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.
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 5,000 times as strong as that due to solar wind. A much larger type of sail called a magsail would employ the solar wind.
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. 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.  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."
One way to see the conservation of energy as not a problem is to note 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. This change of energy can easily be verified to be exactly equal (and opposite) to the energy change of the sail.
The Extended Heliocentric Reference Frame
A Flight Example
H-reversal sun flyby trajectory
Some remarks are in order.
Published - July 2009
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