Journey by Starlight: The Story of the Solar Sail

  • Paul Gilster


The tools of interstellar flight are, one by one, being defined. They are hardly ready to fly over such distances, but even in the case of propulsion, the most intractable problem of all, solutions are being suggested and ideas tested out in laboratories. If our goal is to build a robotic interstellar probe that can deliver a payload to the nearest star and return data from it, then the evidence of our first fifty years of space exploration is that a 4.3-light-year journey is no longer out of the question. The solar sail technology that will probably be our first interstellar propulsion system is one of breathtaking elegance. It will take us to the stars on a beam of light.


Areal Density Science Fiction Solar Sail Microwave Beam Great Comet 
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    “a space voyage of some forty years.”—Smith’s “The Lady Who Sailed the Soul” first appeared in the April 1960 issue of Galaxy. Google Scholar
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    “finally fluttered out among the stars.”— Smith’s fiction has always been hard to gather in one place, but it is now available in The Re-Discovery of Man: The Complete Short Fiction of Cordwainer Smith (Framingham, Mass.: NESFA Press, 1993), 671 pages. The book’s cover shows a three-sail interstellar spacecraft as envisioned by science fiction artist Jack Gaughan.Google Scholar
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    : “Les mondes stellaires (Stellar Worlds)”—Frederick Ordway III writes charmingly about Aventures and other early French science fiction works in his “Visions of the Moon: A Collector’s Tale,” which appeared in the November-December zoos issue of Ad Astra. Google Scholar
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    : “Kepler’s thesis about the displacement of comet’s tails.” —A good discussion of Lebedev’s work is by Vassilis Lembessis, “P. N. Lebedev and Light Radiation Pressure,” in Europhysics News, vol. 32, no. 1, 2001.Google Scholar
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    “as it rushed past the sun.” —Freeman Dyson, who draws frequently from Bernal in books like Disturbing the Universe (1979) and Infinite in All Directions (1988), wrote a wonderful essay exploring Bernal’s contributions that was originally presented as a lecture in Bernal’s honor at Birkbeck College, London. The printed version can now be found as an appendix in Carl Sagan, ed., Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press,1975).Google Scholar
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    “the beginning of modern work on the sail concept.”— Richard Garwin, “Solar Sailing: A Practical Method of Propulsion within the Solar System,” Jet Propulsion z8 (March 1958): 188–9o.Google Scholar
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    “one of the core articles in the field of interstellar studies.”—“Solar Sail Starships: The Clipper Ships of the Galaxy” appeared in Journal of the British Interplanetary Society 34 (1981), pp. 371–80.Google Scholar
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    “pushed by the pressure of light beams.” —Pierre Boulle, Planet of the Apes (New York: Random House, 2000).Google Scholar
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    “the DLR German Aerospace Centre in Cologne.”—“Solar Sails for Space Exploration—The Development and Demonstration of Critical Technologies in Partnership,” ESA Bulletin 98 (June 1999).Google Scholar
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    “the difficulties of deploying the latter.” —Wright Friedman et al., “Solar Sailing: The Concept Made Realistic,” American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Aerospace Sciences Meeting, Huntsville, Ala., Jan. 16–18, 1978. AIAA paper 78–82.Google Scholar
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    “that would have been unrolled individually.”—The heliogyro concept evolved from work by Richard MacNeal at the Astro Research Corporation and John Hedgepath in the mid-196os.Google Scholar
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    : “not ready for that rendezvous,”—See Friedman’s Starsailing: Solar Sails and Interstellar Travel for an overview of this project (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1988).Google Scholar
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    “a promising one.”— Interview with Humphrey Price at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, January 31, 2003.Google Scholar
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    “we have to be circumspect.”—Telephone interview with Moktar Salama, April 4, 2003.Google Scholar
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    : “missions outside the solar system.”—Salama’s recent laboratory work is discussed in his article “Ground Demonstration of a Spinning Solar Sail Deployment Concept,” Journal of Spacecraft d Rockets 40, no. 1 (January 2oo3): 9–14.Google Scholar
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    “NASA flight validation mission.”— See David M. Murphy and Paul A. Gierow, “Scalable Solar Sail Subsystem Design Considerations,” presented at the 43rd Structures, Structural Dynamics and Materials Conference in Denver, Colo. in April 2002. Available online at http: //www. aec-able. com/corpinfo/Resources/zooz-17o3-Murphy.pdf.Google Scholar
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    “a 1945 article in the magazine Wireless World.” —“Extra-Terrestrial Relays: Can Rocket Stations Give World-Wide Radio Coverage?” Wireless World, October 1945.Google Scholar
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    : “satellite television and communications platforms.”—A true geostationary orbit puts the satellite directly over the equator, allowing it to remain stationary with respect to the ground observer, which is why these satellites are so useful for telecommunications and weather purposes.Google Scholar
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    “while the Earth spins around underneath it.”—Robert Forward, Indistinguishable from Magic (New York: Baen Books, 1995), 90.Google Scholar
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    “impart thrust to a sail.”—Benford’s paper on the experiment is “Microwave Beam-Driven Propulsion Experiments for High-Speed Space Exploration,” presented at the EuroEM 2000 conference in Edinburgh, Scotland. Myrabo’s paper is “Experimental Investigation of Laser-Pushed Light Sails in a Vacuum,” presented in 2000 at the Advanced Propulsion Conference at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.Google Scholar
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    “candidates for spaceflight”—“Sail Technology Beamed to Future Space Exploration,” press release from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Media Relations Office, July 5, 2000.Google Scholar
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    “I call my stories `proposals.”’—Phone conversation with James Benford, February 19, 2003.Google Scholar
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    : “2,00o degrees Celsius in practical materials.”—Ibid.Google Scholar
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    “in a paper detailing the experiment.”—James Benford, “Flight and Spin of Microwave-Driven Sails: First Experiments,” Proceedings Pulsed Power Plasma Science 2001, IEEE o1CH37251, p. 548.Google Scholar
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    “1,331 years.”—Gregory Matloff, “The Perforated Solar Sail: Its Application to Interstellar Travel,” Journal of the British Interplanetary Society 56 (2003): 255–61.Google Scholar
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    “they’ll take time to solve.” —Interview with Les Johnson at Marshall Space Flight Center, July 3o, 2003.Google Scholar
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    “The flies can come through but you can’t.”—Benford phone conversation, February 19, 2003.Google Scholar
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    “assisted by other mechanical means.”—Gregory Benford et al., “Sail Deployment by Microwave Beam Experiments and Simulations,” available online at p.120: “a pack of cigarettes.”—Greg Clark, “Breakthrough in Solar Sail Technology,”, March 2, 2000.Google Scholar
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    “(some 30 million kilometers… well inside the orbit of Mercury).”—Charles E. Garner et al., “Lightweight Solar Sail for a Spacecraft Flying Near the Sun,” NASA Tech Brief vol. 26, no. 10, from JPL Technology Report NPO-20854.Google Scholar
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    “loo to 200 kilometers per second.”—Price interview, January 31, 2003.Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2004

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  • Paul Gilster

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