Solar Sails: Sneaking up on Interstellar Travel
L. Johnson (2015), JBIS, 68, pp.44-47
Throughout the world, government agencies, universities and private companies are developing solar sail propulsion systems to more efficiently explore the solar system and to enable science and exploration missions that are simply impossible to accomplish by any other means. Solar sail technology is rapidly advancing to support these demonstrations and missions, and in the process, is incrementally advancing one of the few approaches allowed by physics that may one day take humanity to the stars. Continuous solar pressure provides solar sails with propellantless thrust, potentially enabling them to propel a spacecraft to tremendous speeds, theoretically much faster than any present-day propulsion system. The next generation of sails will enable us to take our first real steps beyond the edge of the solar system, sending spacecraft out to distances of 1000 Astronomical Units, or more. In the farther term, the descendants of these first and second generation sails will augment their thrust by using high power lasers and enable travel to nearby stellar systems with flight times less than 500 years, a tremendous improvement over what is possible with conventional chemical rockets. By fielding these first solar sail systems, we are sneaking up on a capability to reach the stars.