The 21st of May 2010 saw the dawn of a new era in space propulsion when the Japanese Space Agency, JAXA, launched its IKAROS spacecraft. Twenty days into the mission, IKAROS unfurled a 14×14 m2 solar sail that would take the probe on a six-month voyage to Venus, propelled solely by the solar photons reflecting off the 7.5 mm thin, highly reflective membrane.
Solar sail technology is rapidly gaining momentum after successes such as the one by JAXA, but also through NASA’s NanoSail-D2 mission and the Planetary Society’s Lightsail-1 mission. Research in the field is flourishing and new solar sail initiatives are scheduled for the future. The motivation behind this interest is the sail’s unique, “propellantless” nature. As such, solar sails hold great potential for high-energy and long-duration missions, enabling mission concepts that are too costly using traditional forms of propulsion.
After a short general introduction into solar sailing, this seminar will give a high-level overview of some of the mission concepts enabled by solar sailing, focusing on mission concepts for planetary science: for example, using a solar sail to station a platform along the Sun-Earth line sunward of the L1 point to increase warning times for solar storms; using a solar sail to detect and observe potentially hazardous asteroids that are not detectable from the ground; and using a solar sail to hover high above the Poles of the Earth for an unobstructed, continuous view of the polar regions to address key climate science questions.