Solar radiation pressure

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


The source of motive force for solar sail spacecraft is the momentum transported to the sail by radiative energy from the Sun. While the observation that light can push matter is quite contrary to everyday experience, it is a commonplace mechanism in the solar system. Perhaps the most striking example is the elegant beauty of comet tails. Comets have in fact two distinct tails: an ion tail swept out by the solar wind and a dust tail swept out by solar radiation pressure. As will be seen, however, light pressure is by far the dominant effect on solar sails.


Solar Wind Radiation Pressure Solar Disc Solar Radiation Pressure Solar Sail 
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Further Reading

Historical interest

  1. Maxwell, J. C., Electricity and Magnetism, Oxford University Press, 1873.Google Scholar
  2. Lebedew, P., ‘The Physical Causes of Deviation from Newton’s Law of Gravitation’, Astrophysical Journal, 10, 155–161, 1902.ADSCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Nichols, E.F. & Hull, G.F., ‘The Experimental Investigation of the Pressure of Light’, Astrophysical Journal, 15, 60–65, 1902.ADSCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Nichols, E.F. & Hull, G.F., ‘The Pressure due to Radiation’, Physical Review, 17, 26–50, 1903.ADSGoogle Scholar

Radiative transfer

  1. Mihalas, D. & Mihalas, B.W., Foundations of Radiation Hydrodynamics, Oxford University Press, 1984.Google Scholar
  2. McInnes, C.R. & Brown, J.C.,’ solar Sail Dynamics with an Extended Source of Radiation Pressure’, IAF-89-350, 40th International Astronautical Federation Congress, Malaga, October 1989.Google Scholar
  3. McInnes, C.R. & Brown, J.C., ‘The Dynamics of Solar Sails with a Non-point Source of Radiation Pressure’, Celestial Mechanics and Dynamical Astronomy, 9, 249–264, 1990.ADSCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Solar sail force model

  1. Georgevic, R.M., ‘The Solar Radiation Pressure Force and Torques Model’, Journal of Astronautical Sciences, 20, 251–214, 1973.ADSGoogle Scholar
  2. Wright, J.L., Space Sailing, Gordon & Breach Science Publishers, 1992 (Appendix A, B).Google Scholar

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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