Sunday, January 22, 2017

Solar Sails

Solar sailing is a method of propulsion in space that utilizes solar radiation to accelerate a spacecraft, reducing the amount of fuel required for interplanetary missions.

The key to solar sailing is that light, though it has no mass, does have momentum! At first, this seems contradictory; the typical (Newtonian) definition of momentum that one first learns is that momentum equals mass times velocity, or p = mv (p denotes momentum). The mass m is simply a number indicating the quantity of matter in a given object, while p and v are vector quantities, having both magnitude and direction.

However, this definition of momentum is only approximate. Einstein's theory of special relativity holds that momentum, energy, and mass are all different aspects of a single quantity. The famous mass-energy equivalence E = mc2 (c is the speed of light) captures part of this relation. However, this equation is actually a special form of a more general expression for energy:

where p is momentum and m0 is the rest mass of an object (objects which are moving have additional mass and therefore additional energy by the mass energy relation). Photons, the particles of light, travel at the speed of light and are in fact never at rest. However, since objects with a nonzero rest mass can never reach the speed of light, it makes sense to classify photons as massless. Since m0 = 0, the equation reduces to E = cp, or p = E/c. Furthermore, light has energy, so it must have momentum. Different frequencies of light have different energies so photons of greater frequencies (such as X-ray or gamma ray photons) have correspondingly greater momentum.

Considering ordinary molecules for a moment, the macroscopic phenomenon of pressure (for example air pressure) emerges from individual collisions of particles with a surface such as the surface of a balloon. The average force that air molecules colliding with a surface exert is the pressure on that surface. Moreover, each of these collisions involves a transfer of momentum: a particle bouncing from a surface reverses the direction of its momentum vector so by the conservation of momentum the deflecting object also experiences a change in momentum. A similar momentum transfer occurs when light impacts a surface, creating what it known as radiation pressure.

The reason we do not feel radiation pressure whenever we enter sunlight is simply because this pressure is minute relative to the other forces we feel, dwarfed even by the force of a single tissue resting on a surface. The atmospheric pressure at sea level, around 100 pascals (Pa), is over ten billion times greater than the radiation pressure on a perfectly reflecting surface in direct sunlight on Earth (around 10 μPa = 10-5 Pa). Note that this phenomenon is distinct from what is called the solar wind, a term which refers to the stream of particles with mass constantly emanating from the Sun. These particles also exert a pressure when they collide with objects in space, but it is over a thousand times smaller than even the minute radiation pressure. Despite the apparent insignificance of radiation pressure, as in the case of ion propulsion, even small forces add to significant acceleration in space over time.

The concept of using radiation pressure as a means of propulsion is the foundation of the solar sail. Its design is simple: a large sheet of lightweight, reflective material surrounds the spacecraft payload (as in the artist's conception above). Notably, it is desirable for the sail material to reflect rather than absorb photons because this increases the acceleration of the sail.

The concept of a solar sail dates back to shortly after Maxwell's theory of electromagnetism was established in the 1860's in the works of Jules Verne. However, its first applications in spaceflight occurred almost 150 years later. Radiation pressure was used to save fuel in minor maneuvers on the MESSENGER mission and to compensate for a loss of maneuverability in the Kepler space telescope. However, the first true solar sail was IKAROS (Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation of the Sun), a spacecraft launched by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in 2010 to demonstrate the technology.

IKAROS's solar sail measured 20 meters across the diagonal with a reflective film only 0.0075 mm thick that incorporated 0.025 mm thick solar cells to power the telemetry and steering instruments. The orange panels around the edges of the sail steered the craft by altering their reflectance with liquid crystal reflectors. For example, if one side of the sail were made more reflective then the opposite sides, the radiation forces would differ across the sail, causing it to rotate.

Launched on May 21, 2010, the IKAROS payload weighed only 310 kg and its cylindrical body measured on 1.6 meters in diameter and 0.8 meters in height. After reaching space, it followed the above procedure to release the sail (click to enlarge). By taking advantage of the centrifugal forces on four "tip masses" at each corner of the sail, the continually rotating apparatus can expand to full diameter and remain there without any rigid structure supporting the sail. The mission was a full success, demonstrating telemetry, propulsion, navigation, and attitude control for a solar sail.

Over the following years, NASA and the Planetary Society launched their own solar sails into Earth orbit for further testing demonstration of the technology, but IKAROS remained more significant as the first interplanetary solar sail. Once in space, craft employing solar sails do not have to carry any additional fuel, greatly reducing the amount of weight necessary for interplanetary missions. These sails may soon realize their potential as an inexpensive and efficient means of exploring the Solar System.


No comments: