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Sunjammer; sailing through space, mission and technology

Kristian Sagmo
NTNU, Trondheim, November 3, 2014


Ep = hf = h ,

with c denoting the speed of light in empty space,

and f the frequency of the radiation photon. This
illustrates that the energy and momentum carried by
electromagnetic radiation, hereafter denoted EMR, is
inversely proportional to its wavelength, .
The actual momentum transferred by a photon hitting an interface between two medium depends on
a number of variables. Unlike macroscopic particles
like molecules in wind, photons, being elementary
particles, may undergo a number of nuclear quantum mechanical reactions, affecting the transfer of
momentum. These reactions include the Photoelectric Effect, Compton Scattering, and Pair Production [5] . In short all these reactions may serve to
either absorb, scatter of reflect incoming photons. If
we now think of photons in space hitting any surface,
we know from Newtonian mechanics that the greatest momentum transfer happens when the photons is
reflected back in opposite direction.
Consider the flux of photons in a beam of EMR,
given by the beams radiative energy per unit time
per square meter, or irradiance I, divided by the energy of a single photon;

In this essay the ongoing NASA mission Sunjammer

will be discussed, as well as the general aspects of solar sail spacecraft. Using a sunlight propelled (solar
sail) satellite for solar observation and space manouvering the Sunjammer mission1 marks a pretty exiting milestone for space exploration and spacecraft
technology. It will serve as demonstrator for solar sail
spacecraft in general, and hence their aspects are of
In the first section we will look at some theoretical
aspects of solar sails in general, building up some
understanding of what they are, and possibilities they
represent. In the second section the mission details
and plans for Sunjammer will be given. Finally in
section 3 we sum up some of the possibilities we see
for solar sails in the future.

Theory; Basic technical aspects of solar sails

Propulsion mechanisms: The idea behind a solar sail builds on the fact that all electromagnetic
radiation particles, or light particles, called photons,
carries with them a momentum given by

p= ,
(1) The pressure from the beam, called the radiation

pressure Pr , is given by Newtons second law as

where h = 6.626 1034 Js is the Planck constant and
is the wavelength of the photon [8] . This momenPr = p p,
tum leads to a radiation pressure, acting on all media
for photons incident normally on a planar, fully abinterfaces. The energy of a photon is
sorbing surface. If the photons in the beam are inci1 Named after a science fiction novel by Arthur C. Clarke[1]
dent at an angle from the surface normal, onto a
p =

fully reflecting surface, then the flux of photons and

Trough looking at the intensity spectrum from a
the momentum transfer both decreases with a cosine star then, we may find max , and thereby estimate its
factor [7] giving
temperature, T [6] . Then by using Plancks law, we
may estimate the pressure on our solar sail in proxPr = p p cos2 ().
(5) imity of a star. First we reformulate equation(6) in
terms of irradiance by using equation(2), equation(1)
If the momentum from the incoming photons is toand equation(3). We may also include our sails retally reflected so that angle of incidence =0 is equal
flectance for normally incident EMR, R , making
to angle of reflection, then the momentum transfer
is doubled, and radiation pressure is also doubled.
I(, T )d
Pr = 2R ()
Further, if all photons are incident normally onto the
fully reflecting surface, then the radiation pressure is
where R ranges from 0 (no reflection) to 1 (total remaximised;
flection), and usually varies with for different mate[8] [10]
. Then we consider that the total radiation
Pr = 2p p.
(6) rials
leaving a stars spherical surface is the same as the
However, a perfectly planar fully reflecting mate- total radiation crossing a spherical surface at a disrial for all EMR wavelengths may be hard to achieve tance r, when centered at the star. This is of course
in reality. Even more so if the material should be assuming that no radiation is absorbed by interstelfold-able, lightweight, preferably cheap as well as en- lar dust or is otherwise lost along the way. Hence the
vironmentally friendly to produce. So for what wave- stars EMR irradiance at the height of its surface,
length of light should one make sure that the sail is Iini (, T )d, is spread out over a larger area 4r2 ,
fully reflective to maximise propulsion? This depends so that at a distance r from the star with radius R,
on the star(s) chosen as the main source of EMR. we get the irradiance I(r, , T ))d = I (, T )d R2
Many stars EMR spectrum closely resembles that of [6]
a black body [6] . See figure ... for illustration of the
more generally a EMR sail, as
suns irradiance spectrum. The irradiance given off a
black body as a function of wavelength and temperIini (, T )d R2
ature T, is given by Plancks formula as
In general a stars initial irradiace is rarely listed.
I(, T )d =
often astronomers talk about a stars Luminos5
ehc/kT 1
ity, or total radiative power, defined as [6]
The integral over all wavelengths gives the black
bodys total emissivity [power/m2 ], formulated as
L = E 4R2 .
Stefan-Boltzmanns law
For convenience we may estimate the maximum presZ
E =
I(, T )d = T ,
(8) sure due to EMR on our solar sail by reformulating
equation(11) in terms of luminosity,
where is the Stefan-Boltzmann constant, ' 5.67
108 J/sm2 K4 . The peak of the irradiance curve as
Pr = 2
a function of wavelength is given by Wiens displacewhen R =1 for all wavelengths. This means that our
ment law;
sail is able to totally reflect EMR of all wavelengths,
KW ien
max =
(9) which is as mentioned not very likely, but serves as a
simple estimate of the sails maximum performance at
where max is the peaks corresponding wavelength, a distance r from a star. Hence we have the maximal
and KW ien = 2.897 103 mK.
force acting on a sail

FEM Rmax = 2


r0 2
with r denoting relative distance between the two
objects center of mass and G ' 6.674 1011 the
gravitational constant. Now then, for a sail in proximity of a star with mass M how big is the EMR force
compared to the gravitational force? Both forces decreases proportionally to r2 , so this question is answered by the size of the remaining parameters in
equation(14) and (15). The forces equal each other
Fg = G


with A denoting total sail surface area. As an example, with solar luminosity L = 3.84 1026 J/s
the pressure on a solar sail at earths distance from
the sun, rE = 1AU ' 1.5 108 km, is approximately
9.1106 N/m2 . This becomes a force on a 1200 m2
sail approximately equal to 1.1102 N, when sunlight is incident normally on its surface. Incidentally
very close to this estimate, NASA and Lgarde has
claimed that Sunjammers sail will create a maximum thrust of 1.0102 N. But we have no knowledge about at what distance from the Sun they are
talking about. It seems they may be talking about
thrust at Earths distance, and we may assume that
the missing 0.1102 N is due to their sails over all
reflectance being less than 1. More specifically close
to 1 N/1.1 N = 0.9, which seems reasonable with a
material such as aluminium making up the sail[10] .
And that is exactly the case with Sunjammer [1] .
In the above discussion i have made some assumptions to simplify the equations. One is that the photons emitted from a star is very close to parallel. This
however is only true when the distance to the star is
large enough. For instance, it is a safe assumption
when dealing with distances close to, or larger than
1 AU, which is roughly the distance from the Sun
to the Earth [6] . Also, there has been no consideration of interstellar dust, or solar wind effects, which
may affect our sails performance, however in considering propulsion these effect should be significantly
lower than the radiation pressure in general... ref
new source. A sail in orbit around the Sun though
would have to maneuver its sails in order to make up
for drag created by the solar wind. See for example
[9] for further reading on the environment of satellites
and spacecraft.

= GM m,
assuming that the radius of the star R, is much
smaller than the separation distance r between the
sail and the star, so that r ' r 2 . Here, the only real
design parameters are A and m. There is not much
we can do with the mass and luminosity of a star,
not to mention G and c. So, in order to keep our
sail from falling into a star from rest we would need
to keep A/m large enough, or oppositely m/A small
enough, for FEM R > Fg . This illustrates why areal
density = m/A is such an important parameter for
solar sails. Further, Newtons 2. law says that the
acceleration, a, of the sail due to force from EMR is

again, illustrating the point that A should be much
larger than m, in order to gain sail maneuverability
and range.
For a sail operating in the solar system then, we
rearrange equation(16) to give us in terms of the
solar luminosity L given above, solar mass, M '
1.989 1030 kg, speed of light c ' 2.998 108 m/s,
and 2. The result is ' 1.54 g/m2 . Looking at the
data published for Sunjammer, with A = 1200 m2
and m ' 32 kg, we get ' 26.6 g/m2 . This means
Gravitational effects: A solar sail will of course that Sunjammer could not be positioned stationbe subject to gravitational forces when traveling in ary with regards to the Suns position, and certainly
the solar system. So, in designing a sail, how small not escapes its gravitational pull by sail propulsion
should its mass be in relation to its sail size? New- alone. Thereby it must rely on orbital navigation.
2 Seems a rather safe assumption, since otherwise things
ton gives us the gravitational force between two obwould get hot for the EMR absorbing parts of the solar sail.
jects with masses M and m as

If Sunjammer was to achieve the above goal of

' 1.54 g/m2 it would need a sail surface around
the size of 3 football fields , as opposed to its currently planned size of about 1/3 of a football field,
without any weight added.

When it does launch Sunjammer will initially be

transported by a carrier rocket towards the first Lagrangian point L1 between the Sun and Earth3 . Close
to this point, it will detach from its carrier and deploy its sail to do a turnaround and move towards
a sub L1 orbit around the sun4 . This is special, because weve never had a satellite observing the Sun
at such close range, and NASA and Lgarde believes
this may grant us the opportunity of earlier warning
of impending solar storms, compared to current solar
observatories situated around L1 orbit. Also, NASA
has plans to feed a live visual of the sail deployment,
for everyone to watch on the web. Since the goal
of this mission is to be a demonstrator, and the last
demonstration mission before infusion of technology
with commercial space missions, this should be exciting indeed.
Sunjammer provides this unique opportunity to
function as a closer to the Sun observatory, because
in principle it should get free propulsion from the
Sun for an indefinite amount of time, to keep it in
orbit. This would be both expensive and impractical
with a conventional satellite using rocket propulsion,
because it would need to use fuel to keep itself in
orbit, and this extra fuel mass would need to bee
brought into space with a bigger launch rocket. In
short then, you would have a more expensive mission, for a possibly much shorter satellite lifespan.
NASA plans to keep Sunjammer in orbit an approximate distance of 146106 km from the Sun, and
3.6106 km from the earth, measured along the SunEarth axis. This is 2.1106 km closer to the Sun, and
further from the Earth, than the L1 point, giving an
estimated hour of extra warning time for increased
solar activity, compared to todays systems [4] .

General mission overview; In

orbit around the Sun

Mission and flight plan: Sunjammer is a joint

spacecraft operation, supported by NASA STMDs
Technology Demonstration Missions Program. The
project involves deploying the, so far, largest solar sail
in history in space, and manoeuvre it into a sub Lagrangian orbit around the sun. Here it will, with sophisticated instruments on board, act as a Sun observatory, alerting mission technicians on Earth about
potentially harmful increased solar activity. NASA is
working with the following mission objecives[1] :
a) Demonstrate segmented deployment of a
solar sail.
This will be verified with on board imaging system, and data relayed to ground.
b) Demonstrate attitude control plus passive
stability and trim using beam-tip vanes.
Calibration effort will verify control ability and

Execute a navigation sequence with

mission- capable accuracy.
Sunjammer will be flown on a navigation sequence that future users are interested in.

d) Fly to and Possibly Maintain Position at

sub-L1 and/or Pole Sitter Positions.
Real time Infusion. This mission profile will Technology onboard: Sunjammer is a quadratic
demonstrate the validity of using solar sails solar sail, with the sailcraft bus, or payload, located
to monitor space weather at pseudo Lagrange at the centre of the sail. On deployment, it will expoints. Also, data will be relayed to the ground
3 A Lagrange point is a point where the gravitational forces
and analyzed by NOAA, UCL, and ICL.
from two bodies cancel each other. For a two-body system
such as the Earth and the Sun there are five Lagrange points.
See for example [12] for a further explanation.
4 Assuming that NASA will go forward with their plans of
using Sunjammer as a Sun observatory, and not a pole sitter

Considering NASAs budget request for 2015 it seems

Sunjammer is due to launch some time during 2015
or 2016 [11] though other sources had originally suggested 2014 [4] .

pand from a square shaped box and by the use of a

separate inflation module, it will inflate its sail after
extension of the conical deploy-able booms, holding
the sail up along the quadrant diagonals. After deployment of the sail, the inflation module will jettison
to reduce sailcraft mass. The carrier and inflation
module contains pressurized gas compartments and
rocket fuel, considered to be mission hazard components, but once the sail is deployed Sunjammer will
rely entirely on EMR for propulsion. Its sail contains
sail vanes on the tip of each boom, to add maneuverability. Its avionic technology on board will include;
a flight computer, star tracker and Sun sensor, radio and helix antenna, sailcraft EPS and rechargeables, jettison and guidance cameras, magnetometer,
a remote firing board, as well as boom and motor
control boards. In short, while the concept of a solar sail seems simple enough in principle, flying anything in space is a rather complex task. In addition of course, you would need the flight engineers on
ground monitoring and reevaluating orbital trajectories5 . For Sun observation Sunjammer will carry a
solar wind analyser (SWAN) developed by the Imperial College London, supported by the UK space
agency. As mentioned, its sail will be made out of a
highly reflective aluminized material, specifically alumized Kapton film, only 5 m thick. This makes for
a specific sail weight according to Lgarde [1] , of only
8.5 kg, meaning that the sail alone, not considering
the sailcraft bus, has a areal density of sail ' 7
g/m2 . Not very far from the characteristical areal
density goal defined in the theory section6 . However,
with the sailcraft bus included, Sunjammer s areal
density is as mentioned close to 26.6 g/m2 , and this
is of course the areal density that matters, as a sail
floating around in space by itself wouldnt be seen to
be of much practical use. However, with all the high
tech equipment on board, the mission should be of
high promise for all project collaborators, and per-

haps humanity in general, being an advanced solar

observatory and main demonstration mission for all
solar sail driven space exploration in the future.

Discussion; Promise of mission and technology

As we have seen from the development of the basic

technical propulsion mechanisms for a solar sail in
the previous sections, the available thrust for a solar
sail driven space craft is not very likely to be large
enough to replace rocket propulsion in the near future, or perhaps ever. It does however provide valuable extra propulsion, and is of high promise as main
propulsion mechanism for cheap and effective satellite systems. Also, one can imagine making good
use of the extra effect from solar sails combined with
conventional rocket fuelled spacecraft or indeed other
types of spacecraft. Say we wanted to send a Sunjammer like spacecraft to Mars for example. We would
first need to calculate an orbital trajectory, and send
the spacecraft on its way, with rocket fuel or similar
propulsion. Then with the sail deployed and oriented
normally on the trajectory path the sailcraft would
be sped on its way.
So, lets find a ball park figure for the time needed
to sail to Mars from a stand still at Earths distance.
If we use the spacecrafts maximum thrust created
by the sail at 1 AU distance from the Sun (its characteristical maximum thrust) [13] and set that as a
constant thrust for the journey, then by the relation
for an object with constant acceleration



and equation(17) we can find the travel time t. Here

v is just the average speed, and since we have linfor example [9] for a further read on space satellite
ear increase in speed, in the case of a =constant, we
6 So, with considerable advances in nanotechnology, perhaps
have t1 = v/d, with d denoting the travel diswe may one day use pure EMR propelled spacecraft to escape tance. This gives a = (v)2 /d or, v = (ad)1/2 . For
the Suns gravity field, without the need for rocket fuel or
a Sunjammer like sailcraft ( = 26.6 g/m2 , R =0.9)
unnecessary orbital navigation, such as in most science fiction
movies, where orbital trajectories doesnt seem to matter at we have the acceleration 3.12510 m/s , resulting
in a average speed of 8385 m/s, given a travel dis5 See

tance equal to 225 million kilometres7 . Working

our way backwards then we have the travel time
t = 26.83 106 s or 310 days. Not really all that
bad. However, this was a totally unrealistic example. We would not be able to travel from a standstill in space, because of gravity. Some initial orbital
trajectory must be calculated, as mentioned in the
theory section, because our sail is simply not powerful enough to escape gravitational pull from the Sun.
Also, as previously discussed, the force on the sail is
far from constant, it drops as r2 , r being the sails
distance from the Sun. But, this still gives us some
idea of what sort of numbers we are talking about.
On the more realistic side, perhaps one could travel
by the Sun if one wanted to go to the outer planets
or even other star systems. The solar sail could do a
Sun swingby picking up speed as it falls into the stars
gravity field [13] . You could plan a trajectory so that
the sailcraft just misses the Suns blazing hot corona8
and once positioned correctly on the way out from the
star in a highly elliptical orbit the sail deploys and
picks up a considerable amount of EMR, eventually
speeding it out of the orbit and towards the planned
Naturally, no human expedition to other star systems seems possible with any now known spacecraft
systems, let alone the newcomer solar sail spacecrafts.
Still, it seems solar sails could very well become
our preferred spacecraft system for satellites and unmanned space missions in our solar system. After all
its hard to beat a solar sails power per cost, or indeed theoretical longevity for maneuvering in space.
It is dependent mainly I think, of how well equipped
and planned the early generations of solar sails will
be. NASA seems to have high hopes for solar sail
driven missions, and have plans for more spacecraft
launches for Earth observation (pole sitters). One
may also imagine how solar sails could provide a solution for de-orbiting old satellites around Earth, after
they have played their part. They could either be
tossed into space, or pushed into Earths atmosphere
to burn up, and hence clear way for new satellite mis-

sions, or just in general clean up our mess. Further,

Sunjammer isnt the first proper solar sail mission in
space. JAXA, the Japanse space agency, has already
proven that propulsion from EMR by sails work with
its spacecraft Ikaros [13] . So with Sunjammer then,
it seems solar sails are here to stay.
Also solar sails represents a return to our roots of
sorts. Where once we sailed the oceans of the Earth,
we might soon sail the space of our solar system, using
mainly what was always there; the wind and the light
of the Sun.


In this essay we have seen that solar sails are a arguably much cheaper and cleaner means of propulsion
in space compared to conventional rocket fuel, as a
solar sail uses only momentum from the Suns (or a
stars) electromagnetic radiation for thrust. Further,
NASAs Sunjammer mission have been portrayed,
and it is clear that it will be a great demonstration
of solar sail technology. With it, comes the expectation of having solar sails fully integrated into our
space missions in the future, and a hint at what these
missions will look like has been given.
It remains only to be said that in my mind, solar
sail technology seems very promising indeed, perhaps
especially for satellite systems and unmanned space
missions, where weight to sail area ratio may be kept
low, without the need for impractically large sails.
However, that been said, I see no immediate reason
for not incorporating solar sails also in manned missions to space, not as main propulsion mechanism
perhaps, but as a supplement. Also I wish the collaborators of the Sunjammer mission the best of luck,
not because i think they need it, but because i think
they are working on something very exciting.

[1] Nathan Barnes, Sunjammer Solar Sail Project
Overview. LGarde, 18. April 2013,

7 Roughly

the average distance between Earth and Mars.

planned NASA mission Solar probe plus (SPP) will
help determine just how close to the Sun one could actually
get [14]
8 The

[2] National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Solar Sail Demonstration Project.

NASAs Technology Demonstration Missions

Program, NASA Facts,
[3] Billy Derbes, David Lichodziejewski1, Jordan Ellis, Daniel Scheeres, Sailcraft Coordinate Systems And Format For Reporting Propulsive Performance. AAS 04-100,
[4] Webpage,
First NASA solar sail mission to deep space
[5] John Lilley, Nuclear Physics, Principles and Applications. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 1. edition, August 2002.
[6] Marc L. Kutner, Astronomy; A Physical Perspective. Cambridge University Press, 2. edition, 2003.
[7] Tomaz Pozar, Oblique reflection of a laser pulse
from a perfect elastic mirror. Optics Letters, Vol.
39, Issue 1
[8] F.G.Smith, T.A. King, Dan Wilkins, Optics and
Photonics; An Introduction. John Wiley & Sons,
Ltd, 2. edition, May 2008.
[9] J. Sellers, W. Astore, R. Giffen, W. Larson, Understanding space: An introduction to Astronautics. McGraw-Hill Education, 3. edition, 2014.
[10] Wikipedia article, Reflectivity. 09. Juni 2014.
[11] NASA FY 2015 Budget Request.
[12] Wikipedia article, Lagrangian point.
30. October 2014
[13] Wikipedia article, Solar sail.
31. October 2014
[14] Website, Solar probe plus; A NASA mission to
touch the sun