How Solar Sails Work


Solar sails use the sun's energy to propel spacecraft across the cosmos. See more pictures of space exploration.
Photo courtesy NASA

Hundreds of space missions have been launched since the last lunar mission, including several deep space probes that have been sent to the edges of our solar system. However, our journeys to space have been limited by the power of chemical rocket engines and the amount of rocket fuel that a spacecraft can carry. Today, the weight of a space shuttle at launch is approximately 95 percent fuel. What could we accomplish if we could reduce our need for so much fuel and the tanks that hold it?

International space agencies and some private corporations have proposed many methods of transportation that would allow us to go farther, but a manned space mission has yet to go beyond the moon. The most realistic of these space transportation options calls for the elimination of both rocket fuel and rocket engines -- replacing them with sails. Yes, that's right, sails.

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NASA is one of the organizations that has been studying this amazing technology called solar sails that will use the sun's power to send us into deep space. In this article, HowStuffWorks shows you how the idea of solar sailing developed, where NASA and others are in testing this technology and how far and fast solar sails might take us in the universe.

 

Solar Sail Concept

A single-quadrant, 10-meter solar sail system sits fully deployed in a 50-foot-diameter vacuum chamber at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.
A single-quadrant, 10-meter solar sail system sits fully deployed in a 50-foot-diameter vacuum chamber at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.
Photo courtesy NASA/Able Engineering

Nearly 400 years ago, as much of Europe was still involved in naval exploration of the world, Johannes Kepler proposed the idea of exploring the galaxy using sails. Through his observation that comet tails were blown around by some kind of solar breeze, he believed sails could capture that wind to propel spacecraft the way winds moved ships on the oceans. While Kepler's idea of a solar wind has been disproven, scientists have since discovered that sunlight does exert enough force to move objects. To take advantage of this force, NASA has been experimenting with giant solar sails that could be pushed through the cosmos by light.

There are three components to a solar sail-powered spacecraft:

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  • Continuous force exerted by sunlight
  • A large, ultrathin mirror
  • A separate launch vehicle

A solar sail-powered spacecraft does not need traditional propellant for power, because its propellant is sunlight and the sun is its engine. Light is composed of electromagnetic radiation that exerts force on objects it comes in contact with. NASA researchers have found that at 1 astronomical unit (AU), which is the distance from the sun to Earth, equal to 93 million miles (150 million km), sunlight can produce about 1.4 kilowatts (kw) of power. If you take 1.4 kw and divide it by the speed of light, you would find that the force exerted by the sun is about 9 newtons (N)/square mile (i.e., 2 lb/km2 or .78 lb/mi2). In comparison, a space shuttle main engine can produce 1.67 million N of force during liftoff and 2.1 million N of thrust in a vacuum. Eventually, however, the continuous force of the sunlight on a solar sail could propel a spacecraft to speeds five times faster than traditional rockets.

Now, let's take a closer look at those sails.

Solar Sail Materials

A four-quadrant solar sail system created by NASA's solar sail propulsion team at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and its industry partner, L'Garde, Inc. sits fully deployed in a 100-foot-diameter vacuum chamber at NASA's Glenn Research Center.
A four-quadrant solar sail system created by NASA's solar sail propulsion team at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and its industry partner, L'Garde, Inc. sits fully deployed in a 100-foot-diameter vacuum chamber at NASA's Glenn Research Center.
Photo courtesy NASA/L’Garde

While solar sails have been designed before (NASA's had a solar sail program back in the 1970s), materials available until the last decade or so were much too heavy to design a practical solar sailing vehicle. Besides being lightweight, the material must be highly reflective and able to tolerate extreme temperatures. The giant sails being tested by NASA today are made of very lightweight, reflective material that is upwards of 100 times thinner than an average sheet of stationery. This "aluminized, temperature-resistant material" is called CP-1. Another organization that is developing solar sail technology, the Planetary Society (a private, non-profit group based in Pasadena, California), supports the Cosmos 1, which boasts solar sails that are made of aluminum-reinforced Mylar and are approximately one fourth the thickness of a one-ply plastic trash bag.

The reflective nature of the sails is key. As photons (light particles) bounce off the reflective material, they gently push the sail along by transferring momentum to the sail. Because there are so many photons from sunlight, and because they are constantly hitting the sail, there is a constant pressure (force per unit area) exerted on the sail that produces a constant acceleration of the spacecraft. Although the force on a solar-sail spacecraft is less than a conventional chemical rocket, such as the space shuttle, the solar-sail spacecraft constantly accelerates over time and achieves a greater velocity.

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You might be wondering what happens when the spacecraft finds itself far from sunlight. An onboard laser could take over providing the necessary propulsion to the sails.

Solar power - check. Solar sails - check. But how do we get the sails and their spacecraft into space? Let's take a look.

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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Future Space Travel

Solar sails will set new speed records for spacecraft and will enable us to travel beyond our solar system.
Solar sails will set new speed records for spacecraft and will enable us to travel beyond our solar system.

Solar sail technology will eventually play a key role in long-distance NASA missions. But just how far will these solar sails be able to take us and how fast will they get us there?

As we found out in the last section, solar sails would not initially be driven by the amount of force that is used to launch the space shuttle. NASA believes that the exploration of space is similar to the tale of the "Tortoise and the Hare," with rocket-propelled spacecraft being the hare. In this race, the rocket-propelled spacecraft will quickly jump out, moving quickly toward its destination. On the other hand, a rocketless spacecraft powered by a solar sail would begin its journey at a slow but steady pace, gradually picking up speed as the sun continues to exert force upon it. Sooner or later, no matter how fast it goes, the rocket ship will run out of power. In contrast, the solar sail craft has an endless supply of power from the sun. Additionally, the solar sail could potentially return to Earth, whereas the rocket powered vehicle would not have any propellant to bring it back.

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As it continues to be pushed by sunlight, the solar sail-propelled vehicle will build up speeds that rocket powered vehicles would never be able to achieve. Such a vehicle would eventually travel at about 56 mi/sec (90 km/sec), which would be more than 200,000 mph (324,000 kph). That speed is about 10 times faster than the space shuttle's orbital speed of 5 mi/sec (8 km/sec). To give you an idea how fast that is, you could travel from New York to Los Angeles in less than a minute with a solar sail vehicle traveling at top speed.

If NASA were to launch an interstellar probe powered by solar sails, it would take only eight years for it to catch the Voyager 1 spacecraft (the most distant spacecraft from Earth), which has been traveling for more than 20 years. By adding a laser or magnetic beam transmitter, NASA said it could push speeds to 18,600 mi/sec (30,000 km/sec), which is one-tenth the speed of light. At those speeds, interstellar travel would be an almost certainty.

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