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Solar sail capture trajectories at Mercury

Macdonald, M. and McInnes, C.R. (2002) Solar sail capture trajectories at Mercury. In: Proceedings of the AIAA/AAS Astrodynamics Specialist Conference and Exhibit. AIAA.

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Abstract

Mercury is an ideal environment for future planetary exploration by solar sail since it has proved difficult to reach with conventional propulsion and hence remains largely unexplored. In addition, its proximity to the Sun provides a solar sail acceleration of order ten times the sail characteristic acceleration at 1 AU. Conventional capture techniques are shown to be unsuitable for solar sails and a new method is presented. It is shown that capture is bound by upper and lower limits on the orbital elements of the approach orbit and that failure to be within limits results in a catastrophic collision with the planet. These limits are presented for a range of capture inclinations and sail characteristic accelerations. It is found that sail hyperbolic excess velocity is a critical parameter during capture at Mercury, with only a narrow allowed band in order to avoid collision with the planet. The new capture method is demonstrated for a Mercury sample return mission.