Sailing through the Stars: Not Just for Fantasy

Sailing through the Stars: Not Just for Fantasy

Solar sails are a new form of spacecraft propulsion. The idea is to use radiation from the stars to push extremely large, ultra-thin mirrors. This radiation is generally termed ‘solar pressure’ and essentially means the photons from sunlight. These would bounce off of the mirrored surfaces, creating pressure and pushing the craft forward. Once tested, this technology has the potential to provide low-cost, multiple-use propulsion systems that could be used throughout the solar system without a need to refuel, since no propellant is necessary.


The first real test of the technology was IKAROS, a Japanese solar sail launched in 2010 by JAXA. The main purpose of the craft was simply to demonstrate solar sail technology consisting of a large sail membrane with additional thin-film solar cells that power the payload. As a demonstration, IKAROS is a great success. It is still being operated near Venus in order to refine control of solar sail craft.

NASA Solar Sails

NASA’s first solar sail attempt was NanoSail-D2, a 10 square meter sail deployed in 2011. With the success of that first trial, NASA has been working on a more ambitious solar sail they call Sunjammer. This is the largest solar sail to be constructed, with a total area of over 1200 square meters. Despite the immense area, the sail weighs only 32 kilograms. It is intended to be both a demonstration craft and a research vessel. NASA plans to launch Sunjammer in November of 2014.


NanoSail-D in orbit


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