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How Solar Sails Work


Solar Sail Launch
A four quadrant, 20-meter solar sail system is fully deployed during testing at NASA Glenn Research Center's Plum Brook facility in Sandusky, Ohio.
A four quadrant, 20-meter solar sail system is fully deployed during testing at NASA Glenn Research Center's Plum Brook facility in Sandusky, Ohio.
Photo courtesy NASA

With just sunlight as power, a solar sail would never be launched directly from the ground. A second spacecraft is needed to launch the solar sail, which would then be deployed in space. Another possible way to launch a solar sail would be with microwave or laser beams provided by a satellite or other spacecraft. These energy beams could be directed at the sail to launch it into space and provide a secondary power source during its journey. In one experiment at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), sails were driven to liftoff using microwave beams, while laser beams were used to push the sail forward.

Once launched, the sails are deployed using an inflatable boom system that is triggered by a built-in deployment mechanism.


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