How Solar Sails Work

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.

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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