The Aerospace Corp.
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Solar Sails Propel Deep-Space Exploration

Aug. 10, 2021
Solar sails provide a means of propulsion that could make interstellar space travel possible and practical.

Space remains the final frontier, and solar sails may help provide the power needed to cover vast distances. Solar sails being developed by The Aerospace Corporation may produce sufficient power over long operating times to travel the great distances of space. Travel even to the outermost planets in this solar system represents a voyage several billion miles from the sun and using solar energy would be a far more cost-effective method of space travel than conventional means of propulsion based on liquid and solid fuels.

Solar sails provide thrust to an aircraft by harnessing the radiative pressure exerted by solar energy on a reflective material. The approach does not require on-board fuel and was successfully demonstrated with Japan’s IKAROS fly-by of Venus in 2010. Aerospace Corporation is researching solar sail technology for different design strategies and more efficient uses of solar sails for longer distance/time missions at much further distances from the sun. Collaborating with the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department of the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, The Aerospace Corporation is investigating the use of the sun as a launchpad for a deep-space mission, with a “slingshot-type” maneuver applied to achieve extremely high velocities away from the sun.

Dr. Henry Helvajian, Senior Scientist at The Aerospace Corporation’s Physical Sciences Laboratories, explains: “With chemical propulsion, you can attain velocities between two to five astronomical units (AU) per year, with one AU being the distance between the Earth and the Sun.” But with the sun providing the propulsion, he notes, much greater speeds are possible: “The beauty of extreme solar sailing is that you can gain velocities that surpass pretty much any kind of propulsion that we know of today, by factors of two to 10 to 30 depending on how close you want to get to the sun.” Even by “just” reaching 0.1% of the speed of light, spacecraft powered by solar sails could attain speeds of about 300 km/s, reaching the outer planets in this solar system within months and reaching interstellar space in a few years.

About the Author

Jack Browne | Technical Contributor

Jack Browne, Technical Contributor, has worked in technical publishing for over 30 years. He managed the content and production of three technical journals while at the American Institute of Physics, including Medical Physics and the Journal of Vacuum Science & Technology. He has been a Publisher and Editor for Penton Media, started the firm’s Wireless Symposium & Exhibition trade show in 1993, and currently serves as Technical Contributor for that company's Microwaves & RF magazine. Browne, who holds a BS in Mathematics from City College of New York and BA degrees in English and Philosophy from Fordham University, is a member of the IEEE.

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