Introduction to solar sailing

  • Colin Robert McInnes
Part of the Astronomy and Planetary Sciences book series (PRAXIS)


For all of its short history, practical spacecraft propulsion has been dominated by the unaltering principles of Newton’s third law. All forms of propulsion, from simple solid rocket motors to complex solar-electric ion drives, rely on a reaction mass which is accelerated into a high velocity jet by some exothermal or electromagnetic means. A unique and elegant form of propulsion which transcends this reliance on reaction mass is the solar sail. Since solar sails are not limited by a finite reaction mass they can provide continuous acceleration, limited only by the lifetime of the sail film in the space environment. Of course, solar sails must also obey Newton’s third law. However, solar sails gain momentum from an ambient source, namely photons, the quantum packets of energy of which Sunlight is composed.


Solar System Solar Radiation Pressure Solar Sail Specific Impulse Mission Duration 
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Further Reading

Historical interest

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  4. Tsander, K., From a Scientific Heritage, NASA Technical Translation TTF-541, 1967 [quoting a 1924 report by the author].Google Scholar
  5. Wiley, C. [pseudonym Sanders, R.], ‘Clipper Ships of Space’, Astounding Science Fiction, p. 135, May 1951.Google Scholar
  6. Garwin, R.L., ‘Solar Sailing — A Practical Method of Propulsion Within the Solar System’, Jet Propulsion, 28, 188–190, 1958.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Clarke, A.C., ‘The Wind from the Sun’ (first published 1963), see, for example, Project Solar Sail, ed. Clarke, A.C., Penguin Group Books, New York, 1990.Google Scholar
  8. Friedman, L.,’ solar Sailing: The Concept Made Realistic’, AIAA-78-82, 16th A1AA Aerospace Sciences Meeting, Huntsville, January 1978.Google Scholar
  9. Drexler, K.E., ‘High Performance Solar Sails and Related Reflecting Devices’, AIAA-79-1418, 4th Princeton/AIAA Conference on Space Manufacturing Facilities, Princeton, May 1979.Google Scholar
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  11. Perret, A., LaBombard, E. & Miura, K., ‘The Solar Sail Race to the Moon’, IAF-89-539, 40th International Astronautical Federation Congress, Malaga, October 1989.Google Scholar

Selected introductory papers

  1. Tsu, T.C., ‘Interplanetary Travel by Solar Sail’, American Rocket Society Journal, 29, 422–427, 1959.Google Scholar
  2. London, H.S., ‘Some Exact Solutions of the Equations of Motion of a Solar Sail With a Constant Setting’, American Rocket Society Journal, 30, 198–200, 1960.MATHGoogle Scholar
  3. Sands, N., ‘Escape from Planetary Gravitational Fields by use of Solar Sails’, American Rocket Society Journal, 31, 527–531, 1961.Google Scholar
  4. Fimple, W.R., ‘Generalised Three-Dimensional Trajectory Analysis of Planetary Escape by Solar Sail’, American Rocket Society Journal, 32, 883–887, 1962.MATHGoogle Scholar
  5. Wright, J.L. & Warmke, J.M.,’ solar Sail Mission Applications’ AIAA-76-808, AIAA/AAS Astrodynamics Conference, San Diego, August 1976.Google Scholar
  6. Van der Ha, J.C. and Modi, V.J., ‘Long-term Evaluation of Three-Dimensional Heliocentric Solar Sail Trajectories with Arbitrary Fixed Sail Setting’, Celestial Mechanics, 19, 113–138, 1979.ADSMATHCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Svitek, T. et al.,’ solar Sail Concept Study’, IAF-ST-82-12, 33rd International Astronautical Congress, Paris, October 1982.Google Scholar
  8. Staehle, R.L., ‘An Expedition to Mars Employing Shuttle-Era Systems, Solar Sail and Aerocapture’, Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, 35, 327–335, 1982.ADSGoogle Scholar
  9. Forward, R.L., ‘Light-Levitated Geostationary Cylindrical Orbits: Correction and Expansion’, Journal of Astronautical Sciences, 38, 3, 335–353, 1990.Google Scholar
  10. McInnes, C.R.,’ solar Sail Halo Trajectories: Dynamics and Applications’, IAF-91-334, 42nd International Astronautical Congress, Montreal, October 1991.Google Scholar
  11. Forward, R.L., ‘Statite: A Spacecraft That Does Not Orbit’, Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets, 28, 5, 606–611, 1991.ADSCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. McInnes, C.R., McDonald, A.J.C., Simmons, J.F.L. & MacDonald, E.W., ‘Solar Sail Parking in Restricted Three-Body Systems’, Journal of Guidance Dynamics and Control, 17, 2, 399–406, 1994.ADSMATHCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Maccone, C., ‘Space Missions Outside the Solar System to Exploit the Gravitational Lens of the Sun’, Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, 47, 45–52, 1994.ADSGoogle Scholar
  14. Leipold, M., Borg, E., Lingner, S., Pabsch, A., Sachs, R. and Seboldt, W., ‘Mercury Orbiter with a Solar Sail Spacecraft’, Acta Astronautica, 35, Suppl. 635–644, 1995.ADSCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Prado, J.Y., Perret, A., Pignolet, G. & Dandouras, I., ‘Using a Solar Sail for a Plasma Storm Early Warning System’, IAA-96-IAA.3.3.06, 47th International Astronautical Congress, October 1996.Google Scholar
  16. Leipold, M., ‘ODISSEE — A Proposal for Demonstration of a Solar Sail in Earth Orbit’, IAA-L98-1005, 3rd International Academy of Astronautics Conference on Low-Cost Planetary Missions, Pasadena, April 1998.Google Scholar
  17. McInnes, C.R., ‘Mission Applications for High Performance Solar Sails’, IAA-L.98-1006, 3rd IAA International Conference on Low-Cost Planetary Missions, Pasadena, April 1998.Google Scholar
  18. Gershman, R. & Seybold, C., ‘Propulsion Trades for Space Science Missions’, IAA-L.98-1001, 3rd IAA International Conference on Low-Cost Planetary Missions, Pasadena, April 1998.Google Scholar
  19. Carroll, K.A., ‘Economical Planetary Space Science Using Small Solar Sail Propelled Spacecraft’, Proceedings of the 10th Conference on Astronautics, CASI (Canadian Aeronautics and Space Institute), Ottawa, October 1998.Google Scholar

Solar sailing books

  1. Polyakhova, E., Space Flight Using a Solar Sail — The Problems and the Prospects, Kosmicheskiy Polet Solnechnym Parusom, Moscow, 1986 [in Russian].Google Scholar
  2. Friedman, L., Star Sailing: Solar Sails and Interstellar Travel, Wiley Science Publications, New York, 1988.Google Scholar
  3. Clark, A.C. [ed.], Project Solar Sail, Penguin Group Books, New York, 1990.Google Scholar
  4. Wright, J.L., Space Sailing, Gordon & Breach Science Publishers, Philadelphia, 1992.Google Scholar
  5. Souza, D.M., Space Sailing, Lerner Publications Company, Minneapolis, 1994.Google Scholar

Solar sail internet sites


Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 1999

Authors and Affiliations

  • Colin Robert McInnes
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Aerospace EngineeringUniversity of GlasgowGlasgowScotland

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