How Solar Sail Technology Works

By: Craig Freudenrich, Ph.D.

Cosmos-1 Mission

Cosmos-1 will be launched from a submarine.
Cosmos-1 will be launched from a submarine.
Photo courtesy The Planetary Society

Launch Vehicle

To get Cosmos-1 into Earth orbit, the spacecraft will be loaded into a modified intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) of Russian design, called the Volna. The ICBM will be launched from a Russian submarine in the Barents Sea. Typically, the Volna ICBM does not have enough thrust to reach orbit, but the missile used for Cosmos-1 will have an added rocket engine (kick stage) that is used to de-orbit satellites. The kick-stage engine will provide the additional thrust required to get Cosmos-1 into orbit.

Once in orbit, the solar sails will be deployed. The mission could last anywhere from a few days to a few months. The mission will be deemed a success if the spacecraft can move to a higher orbit using the solar sails. If the goal of the mission is achieved, and if the mission lasts longer than a few days, there may be an additional test to determine if Earth-based lasers can supply sufficient light to push the spacecraft in orbit.


Launch (larger version of the image)
Photo courtesy The Planetary Society

Other Solar Sail Missions

Groups other than The Planetary Society have proposed and are developing solar-sail missions. In August of 2004, two large solar sails were launched and deployed into space by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency. NASA is developing a solar-sail spacecraft for launch. The German Space Agency (DLR) and European Space Agency (ESA) also have a solar-sail spacecraft in development, and Carnegie Mellon University is working on a heliogyro solar sail.