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Solar sailing: orbital mechanics and mission applications

McInnes, C.R. (2003) Solar sailing: orbital mechanics and mission applications. Advances in Space Research, 31 (8). pp. 1971-1980. ISSN 0273-1177

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Abstract

Solar sailing is a unique and elegant form of propulsion which transcends reliance on reaction mass. Rather than carrying propellant, solar sails gain momentum from photons, the quantum packets of energy from which sunlight is composed. Since solar sails are not limited by reaction mass, they can provide continual acceleration, limited only by the lifetime of the sail film in the space environment. Therefore, solar sails can expand the envelope of possible missions, enabling new high-energy mission concepts that are essentially impossible for conventional reaction propulsion, and enhancing current mission concepts by lowering launch mass and reducing trip times. This paper will review the orbital mechanics of solar sails and illustrate some of the unique orbits which are enabled by the technology, in addition to practical mission applications.