Solarearth large

Concept image of a solar sail spacecraft in the process of unfurling sails.

Solar sails (also called light sails, especially when they use light sources other than the Sun) are a proposed form of spacecraft propulsion using large membrane mirrors. Radiation pressure is small and decreases by the square of the distance from the sun, but unlike rockets, solar sails require no fuel. Although the thrust is small, it continues as long as the sun shines and the sail exists.

Solar collectors, temperature-control panels and sun shades are occasionally used as expedient solar sails, to help ordinary spacecraft and satellites make minor corrections to their attitude and orbit without using fuel. This conserves fuel that would otherwise be used for maneuvering and attitude control. A few have even had small purpose-built solar sails for this use. Some unmanned spacecraft (such as Pioneer 10) have substantially extended their service lives with this practice.

The science of solar sails is well-proven, but the technology to manage large solar sails is still undeveloped. Mission planners are not yet willing to risk multimillion dollar missions on unproven solar sail unfolding and steering mechanisms. This neglect has inspired some enthusiasts to attempt private development of the technology.

The concept was first proposed by German astronomer Johannes Kepler in the seventeenth century.[1] It was again proposed by Friedrich Zander in the late 1920s and gradually refined over the decades.

How they workEdit

The spacecraft deploys a large membrane mirror which reflects light from the Sun or some other source. The radiation pressure on the mirror provides a miniscule amount of thrust by reflecting photons. Tilting the reflective sail at an angle from the Sun produces thrust at an angle that bisects the angle between the Sun and the spacecraft. In most designs, steering would be done with auxiliary vanes, acting as small solar sails to change the attitude of the large solar sail (see the vanes on the illustration). The vanes would be adjusted by electric motors.

Sails orbit, and therefore do not need to hover or move directly toward or away from the sun. Almost all missions would use the sail to change orbit, rather than thrusting directly away from a planet or the sun. The sail is rotated slowly as the sail orbits around a planet so the thrust is in the direction of the orbital movement to move to a higher orbit or against it to move to a lower orbit. When an orbit is far enough away from a planet, the sail then begins similar maneuvers in orbit around the sun.

The best sort of missions for a solar sail involves a dive near the sun, where the light is intense, and sail efficiencies are high. For this reason, most sails are designed to tolerate much higher temperatures than one might expect. Going close to the Sun may be done for different mission aims: for exploring the solar poles from a short distance, for observing the Sun and its near environment from a non-Keplerian circular orbit the plane of which may be shifted some solar radii, for flying-by the Sun such that the sail gets a very high speed. An unsuspected feature, until the first half of the Nineties, of the solar sail propulsion is to allow a sailcraft to escape the solar system with a cruise speed higher (or even much higher) than a spacecraft powered by a nuclear electric rocket system. The spacecraft mass to sail area ratio does not need to achieve ultra-low values, even though the sail should be an advanced all-metal sail. This flight mode is also known as the fast solar sailing. Proven mathematically (like many other astronautical items well in advance of their actual launches), such sailing mode has been considered by NASA/Marshall as one of the options for a future precursor interstellar probe (NASA/CR 2002-211730, the chapter IV) exploring the near interstellar space beyond the heliosphere.

Most theoretical studies of interstellar missions with a solar sail plan to push the sail with a very large laser. The thrust vector would therefore be away from the Sun and toward the target.


Critics of the solar sail argue that solar sails are impractical for orbital and interplanetary missions because they move on an indirect course. However, when in Earth orbit, the majority of mass on most interplanetary missions is taken up by fuel. A robotic solar sail could therefore multiply an interplanetary payload by several times by reducing this heavy fuel mass, and create a reusable, multimission spacecraft. Most near-term planetary missions involve robotic exploration craft, in which the directness of the course is simply unimportant compared to the small fuel mass and fast transit times of a solar sail. For example, most existing missions use multiple gravitational slingshots to reduce fuel mass, because even though these are terribly indirect they save years of transit time.

Another false claim is that solar sails capture energy primarily from the "solar wind": high speed charged particles emitted from the sun. These particles would impart a small amount of momentum upon striking the sail, but this effect would be small compared to the force due to radiation pressure from light reflected from the sail. The force due to light pressure is about 100 times as strong as that due to solar wind.

Another common claim is that the radiation pressure is an unproven effect that may violate the thermodynamical Carnot cycle. This criticism was raised by Thomas Gold of Cornell, leading to a public debate in the spring of 2003. [2]

Investigated sail designsEdit

Solarsail msfc

NASA study of a solar sail. The sail would be half a kilometer wide.

"Parachutes" would have very low mass, but theoretical studies show that they will collapse from the forces placed by shrouds. Radiation pressure does not behave like aerodynamic pressure.

The highest thrust-to-mass designs known were developed by Eric Drexler, in an MIT master's thesis. He designed a sail using reflective panels of thin aluminum film (30 to 100 nanometers thick) supported by a purely tensile structure. It rotated and would have to be continually under slight thrust. He made and handled samples of the film in the laboratory, but the material is too delicate to survive folding, launch, and deployment, hence the design relied on space-based production of the film panels, joining them to a deployable tension structure. Sails in this class would offer accelerations an order of magnitude higher than designs based on deployable plastic films.

The highest-thrust to mass designs for ground-assembled deployable structures are square sails with the masts and guy lines on the dark side of the sail. Usually there are four masts that spread the corners of the sail, and a mast in the center to hold guide wires. One of the largest advantages is that there are no hot spots in the rigging from wrinkling or bagging, and the sail protects the structure from the sun. This form can therefore go quite close to the sun, where the maximum thrust is present. Control would probably use small sails on the ends of the spars.


In the 1970s JPL did extensive studies of rotating blade and rotating ring sails for a mission to rendezvous with Halley's Comet. The intention was that such structures would be stiffened by centripetal forces, eliminating the need for struts, and saving mass. In all cases, surprisingly large amounts of tensile structure were needed to cope with dynamic loads. Weaker sails would ripple or oscillate when the sail's attitude changed, and the oscillations would add and cause structural failure. So the difference in the thrust-to-mass ratio was almost nil, and the static designs were much easier to control.

JPL's reference design was called the "heliogyro" and had plastic-film blades deployed from rollers and held out by centripetal forces as it rotated. The spacecraft's attitude and direction were to be completely controlled by changing the angle of the blades in various ways, similar to the cycle and collective pitch of a helicopter. Although the design had no mass advantage over a square sail, it remained attractive because the method of deploying the sail was simpler than a strut-based design.

JPL also investigated "ring sails" (Spinning Disk Sail in the above diagram), panels attached to the edge of a rotating spacecraft. The panels would have slight gaps, about one to five percent of the total area. Lines would connect the edge of one sail to the other. Weights in the middles of these lines would pull the sails taut against the coning caused by the radiation pressure. JPL researchers said that this might be an attractive sail design for large manned structures. The inner ring, in particular, might be made to have artificial gravity roughly equal to Mars.

A solar sail can serve a dual function as a high-gain antenna. Designs differ, but most modify the metallization pattern to create a holographic monochromatic lens or mirror in the radio frequencies of interest, including visible light.

Current progressEdit

Cosmos 1 solar sail

Cosmos 1

No solar sails have been successfully deployed as primary propulsion systems, but research in the area is continuing. On August 9 2004 Japanese ISAS successfully deployed two prototype solar sails from a sounding rocket. A clover type sail was deployed at 122 km altitude and a fan type sail was deployed at 169 km altitude. Both sails used 7.5 micrometer thick film.

A joint private project between Planetary Society, Cosmos Studios and Russian Academy of Science launched Cosmos 1 on June 21, 2005, from a submarine in the Barents Sea, but the Volna rocket failed, and the spacecraft failed to reach orbit. A solar sail would have been used to gradually raise the spacecraft to a higher earth orbit. The mission would have lasted for one month. A suborbital prototype test by the group failed in 2001 as well, also because of rocket failure.

A 15-meter-diameter solar sail (SSP, solar sail sub payload, soraseiru sabupeiro-do) was launched together with ASTRO-F on a M-V rocket at 21:28, February 21, 2006 UTC (06:28, February 22 JST) and made it to orbit. It deployed from the stage at 2146 UTC but opened incompletely [3].

Sail materialsEdit

Solar sail material

NASA engineer Les Johnson views interstellar sail material

The best known material is thought to be a thin mesh of aluminium with holes less than 1/2 the wavelength of most light. Nanometer-sized "antennas" would emit heat energy as infrared. Although samples have been created, it is too fragile to unfold or unroll with known technology.

The most common material in current designs is aluminized 2 μm Kapton film. It resists the heat of a pass close to the Sun and still remains reasonably strong. The aluminium reflecting film is on the Sun side. The sails of Cosmos 1 were made of aluminized PET film.

Research by Dr. Geoffrey Landis in 1998-9, funded by the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts, showed that various materials such as Alumina for laser lightsails and Carbon fiber for microwave pushed lightsails were superior sail materials to the previously standard aluminum or kapon films.

In 2000, Energy Science Laboratories developed a new carbon fiber material which might be useful for solar sails. The material is over 200 times thicker than conventional solar sail designs, but it is so porous that it has the same weight. The rigidity and durability of this material could make solar sails that are significantly better than plastic films. The material could self-deploy and should withstand higher temperatures.

There has been some theoretical speculation about using molecular manufacturing techniques to create advanced, strong, hyper-light sail material, based on nanotube mesh weaves, where the weave "spaces" are less than 1/2 the wavelength of light impinging on the sail. While such materials have as-of-yet only been produced in laboratory conditions, and the means for manufacturing such material on an industrial scale are not yet available, such materials could weigh less than 0.1 g/m2[4] making them lighter than any current sail material by a factor of at least 30. For comparison, 5 micrometre thick Mylar sail material weighs 7g/m2, aluminized Kapton films weighs up to 12 g/m2, [5], and Energy Science Laboratories' new carbon fiber material weighs in at 3g/m2[6].


Robert Forward proposed the use of lasers to push solar sails, providing beam-powered propulsion. Given a sufficiently powerful laser and a large enough mirror to keep the laser focused on the sail for long enough, a solar sail could be accelerated to a significant fraction of the speed of light. To do so, however, would require the engineering of massive, precisely-shaped optical mirrors or lenses (wider than the Earth for interstellar transport), incredibly powerful lasers, and more power for the lasers than humanity currently generates.

A potentially easier approach would be to use a maser to drive a "solar sail" composed of a mesh of wires with the same spacing as the wavelength of the microwaves, since the manipulation of microwave radiation is somewhat easier than the manipulation of visible light. The hypothetical "Starwisp" interstellar probe design would use a microwave laser to drive it. Microwave lasers spread out more rapidly than optical lasers thanks to their longer wavelength, and so would not have as long an effective range.

Microwave lasers could also be used to power a painted solar sail, a conventional sail coated with a layer of chemicals designed to evaporate when struck by microwave radiation. The momentum generated by this evaporation could significantly increase the thrust generated by solar sails.

To further focus the energy on a distant solar sail, designs have considered the use of a large zone plate. This would be placed at a location between the laser or maser and the spacecraft. The plate could then be propelled outward using the same energy source, thus maintaining its position so as to focus the energy on the solar sail.

Spacecraft fitted with solar sails can also be placed in close orbits about the Sun that are stationary with respect to either the Sun or the Earth, a type of satellite called a statite. This is possible because the propulsion provided by the sail offsets the gravitational potential of the Sun. Such an orbit could be useful for studying the properties of the Sun over long durations.

Such a spacecraft could conceivably be placed directly over a pole of the Sun, and remain at that station for lengthy durations. Likewise a solar sail-equipped spacecraft could also remain on station nearly above the polar terminator of a planet such as the Earth by tilting the sail at the appropriate angle needed to just counteract the planet's gravity. Additionally, it has been theorized by Da Vinci Project contributor T. Pesando that solar sail-utilizing spacecraft successful in interstellar travel could be used to carry their own zone plates or perhaps even masers to be deployed during flybys at nearby stars. Such an endeavour could allow future solar-sailed craft to effectively utilize focused energy from other stars rather than from the Earth or Sun, thus propelling them more swiftly through space and perhaps even to more distant stars. However, the potential of such a theory remains uncertain if not dubious due to the high-speed precision involved and possible payloads required.

Future VisionsEdit

Despite the loss of Cosmos 1 (which was due to a failure of the launcher), most scientists and engineers around the world remain undiscouraged and continue to work on solar sails. While most direct applications created so far intend to use the sails as inexpensive modes of cargo transport, some scientists are investigating the possibility of using solar sails as a means of transporting humans. This goal is strongly related to the management of very large (i.e. well above 1 km2) surfaces in space and the sail making advancements. Thus, in the near/medium term, solar sail propulsion is aimed chiefly at accomplishing a very high number of non-crewed missions in any part of the solar system and beyond.

Solar sails in fictionEdit

See alsoEdit


  • Space Sailing by Jerome L. Wright, who was involved with JPL's effort to use a solar sail for a rendezvous with Halley's comet.
  • Solar Sailing, Technology, Dynamics and Mission Applications - Colin R. McInnes presents the state of the art in his book.
  • G. Vulpetti, 3D High-Speed Escape Heliocentric Trajectories by All-Metallic-Sail Low-Mass Sailcraft, Acta Astronautica, Vol. 39, pp 161-170, July-August 1996
  • G. Vulpetti, Sailcraft Trajectory Options for the Interstellar Probe: Mathematical Theory and Numerical Results, the Chapter IV of NASA/CR-2002-211730, The Interstellar Probe (ISP): Pre-Perihelion Trajectories and Application of Holography, June 2002

External linksEdit