Solar sails
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13-10-2010, 02:40 PM

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A solar sail is a very large mirror that reflects sunlight. As the photons of sunlight strike the sail and bounce off, they gently push the sail along by transferring momentum to the sail. Because there are so many photons from sunlight, and because they are constantly hitting the sail, there is a constant pressure (force per unit area) exerted on the sail that produces a constant acceleration of the spacecraft. Although the force on a solar-sail spacecraft is less than a conventional chemical rocket, such as the space shuttle, the solar-sail spacecraft constantly accelerates over time and achieves a greater velocity. It's like comparing the effects of a gust of wind versus a steady, gentle breeze on a dandelion seed floating in the air. Although the gust of wind (rocket engine) initially pushes the seed with greater force, it dies quickly and the seed coasts only so far. In contrast, the breeze weakly pushes the seed during a longer period of time, and the seed travels farther. Solar sails enable spacecraft to move within the solar system and between stars without bulky rocket engines and enormous amounts of fuel.
A solar sail is made up of a reflective surface, or several surfaces, depending on the sail’s design. When the bright sails face the Sun directly, they are subjected to a steady barrage of photons that reflect off the shiny surfaces and impel the spacecraft forward, away from the Sun. By changing the angle of the sail relative the Sun it is possible to affect the direction in which the sail is propelled – just as a sailboat changes the angle of its sails to affect its course. It is even possible to direct the spacecraft towards the Sun, rather than away from it, by using the photon’s pressure on the sails to slow down the spacecraft’s speed and bring its orbit closer to the Sun.
In order for sunlight to provide sufficient pressure to propel a spacecraft forward, a solar sail must capture as much Sunlight as possible. This means that the surface of the sail must be big – very big. Cosmos 1 is a small solar sail intended only for a short mission. Nevertheless, once it spreads its sails even this small spacecraft will be 10 stories tall, as high as the rocket that will launch it. Its eight triangular blades are 15 meters (49 feet) in length, and have a total surface area of 600 square meters (6500 square feet). This is about one and a half times the size of a basketball court.

Figure 1. Fractionation of Solar Sails. (a) A NASA 20-m four-quadrant solar sail fully deployed in testing. This solar sail is comprised of four smaller sails, making the handling, deployment, and control of the finished product much more manageable than a single, large sail of the same size. Image courtesy of NASA. (b) A conceptual depiction of a particulate solar sail, where the sail material is divided into much smaller components, further reducing the difficulties in manufacturing and launching of the sail while offering increased robustness and novel opportunities.

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