Space Exploration/Solar Sails

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Question
Hi Mr Renshaw
Iím a student in grade 12 in Australia and I am currently trying to answer my question which is ĎAre solar sails a viable form of space travel?í If you have an understanding of this topic, could you please provide me with an insight into the benefits and disadvantages of using solar sails as propulsion for space craft? I am also interested in the actual construction and operation of the craft. In addition, I have a basic understanding of the momentum transfer from photons onto the sail but if there is any scientific information you could provide on the operation of solar sails it would be greatly appreciated.
What is the current status on the use of solar sails? Is it still experimental or has is moved past that stage?
Thank you

Answer
Hi, Jaya, thanks for writing.  Solar sails are an economical means of slowly reaching a great speed in space.  It is very slow, but constant and free acceleration using the solar wind, but is not possible for escape from earth or fast maneuvering.  The sails are very large so that a small force of solar wind can be useful.  I believe that they have been used for some spacecraft for acceleration, but so far as a minor role.  They have had some navigational role in Messenger, the probe to Mercury.  They will prabably be used in a more important role for long duration/long distance travel in the future.  See Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_sail) for a very good article on sails.  Write anytime!

Space Exploration

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Kenneth Renshaw

Expertise

Answer basic space flight questions, research info on specific space flights. Answer questions on astronomy

Experience

Amateur astronomer and avid astronomy/space flight fan for 31 years.

Organizations
Official NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador for Arkansas and Missouri (one of about 300 nationwide). (http://www2.jpl.nasa.gov/ambassador/profiles/Kenneth_Renshaw.htm)

Publications
Numerous local and area newspapers.

Education/Credentials
AA/BME/MME

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