Solar sail heliocentric Earth-following orbits

Heiligers, Jeannette and McInnes, Colin (2015) Solar sail heliocentric Earth-following orbits. Journal of Guidance, Control and Dynamics, 38 (5). pp. 937-944. ISSN 1533-3884 (

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Solar sail technology development is rapidly gaining momentum after recent successes such as JAXA’s IKAROS mission and NASA’s NanoSail-D2 mission. Research in the field is flourishing and new solar sail initiatives, such as NASA’s Sunjammer mission, are scheduled for the future. Solar sails exploit the radiation pressure generated by solar photons reflecting off a large, highly reflecting sail to produce a continuous thrust force. They are therefore not constrained by propellant mass, which gives them huge potential for long-lifetime and high-energy mission concepts and enables a range of novel applications. One such family of applications are non-Keplerian orbits (NKOs), where the force due to solar radiation pressure on a solar sail is used to displace an orbit away from a natural Keplerian orbit. Different types of NKOs exist, including NKOs in the two-body problem (either Sun-centered or Earth-centered) and NKOs in the well-known circular restricted three-body problem (CR3BP). In the Sun-centered two-body problem, NKOs are determined by considering the solar sail spacecraft dynamics in a rotating frame of reference. By setting the time derivatives of the position vector equal to zero, equilibrium solutions are found in the rotating frame that correspond to displaced circular orbits in an inertial frame. Such Sun-centred NKOs allow a spacecraft to be synchronous with a planet at any heliocentric distance inward from the target planet and/or to displace a solar sail spacecraft out of the ecliptic plane for solar polar observations, interplanetary communication, and astronomical observations. A similar approach can be used to find solar sail NKOs in the Earth two-body problem, creating, for example, orbits on the Earth’s nightside to study its magnetotail and interaction with the solar wind and displaced geostationary orbits to create additional geostationary slots for telecommunication, Earth observation, and weather satellites. Finally, in the CR3BP, solar sails have been demonstrated to extend the five Lagrange points to a continuum of new artificial equilibrium points (AEPs) and can be used to create periodic orbits around these AEPs. The applications of these NKOs are abundant, including one-year periodic orbits high above the ecliptic in the Sun-Earth system for polar observations, solar sail trajectories above the Earth-Moon L2 point to establish an Earth-Moon communication link and solar sail Halo orbits sunward of the Sun-Earth L1 point to increase the warning times for solar storms. Rather than displacing the orbit, the force due to solar radiation pressure on a solar sail can also be used to create an artificially precessing NKO. For example, the GeoSail mission proposed the use of a solar sail to rotate an elliptic geocentric orbit in the ecliptic plane such that apogee remains on the night side of the Earth to enable continuous observations of the geomagnetic tail. In this technical note, the concept of rotating an elliptic orbit by means of a solar sail is considered further by investigating precessing, heliocentric, and Earth-following orbits. The sail orbit’s aphelion follows the Earth’s orbital motion throughout the year and is always directed along the Sun-Earth line, allowing extended observations for space weather forecasting and Near Earth Objects (NEOs) surveillance activities.