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Hybrids of Solar Sail, Solar Electric, and Solar Thermal Propulsion for Solar-System ExplorationSolar sails have long been known to be an attractive method of propulsion in the inner solar system if the areal density of the overall spacecraft (S/C) could be reduced to approx.10 g/sq m. It has also long been recognized that the figure (precise shape) of useful solar sails needs to be reasonably good, so that the reflected light goes mostly in the desired direction. If one could make large reflective surfaces with reasonable figure at an areal density of approx.10 g/sq m, then several other attractive options emerge. One is to use such sails as solar concentrators for solar-electric propulsion. Current flight solar arrays have a specific output of approx. 100W/kg at 1 Astronomical Unit (AU) from the sun, and near-term advances promise to significantly increase this figure. A S/C with an areal density of 10 g/sq m could accelerate up to 29 km/s per year as a solar sail at 1 AU. Using the same sail as a concentrator at 30 AU, the same spacecraft could have up to approx. 45 W of electric power per kg of total S/C mass available for electric propulsion (EP). With an EP system that is 50% power-efficient, exhausting 10% of the initial S/C mass per year as propellant, the exhaust velocity is approx. 119 km/s and the acceleration is approx. 12 km/s per year. This hybrid thus opens attractive options for missions to the outer solar system, including sample-return missions. If solar-thermal propulsion were perfected, it would offer an attractive intermediate between solar sailing in the inner solar system and solar electric propulsion for the outer solar system. In the example above, both the solar sail and solar electric systems don't have a specific impulse that is near-optimal for the mission. Solar thermal propulsion, with an exhaust velocity of the order of 10 km/s, is better matched to many solar system exploration missions. This paper derives the basic relationships between these three propulsion options and gives examples of missions that might be enabled by such hybrids.
Document ID
Document Type
Conference Paper
External Source(s)
Wilcox, Brian H. (Jet Propulsion Lab., California Inst. of Tech. Pasadena, CA, United States)
Date Acquired
May 26, 2015
Publication Date
March 3, 2012
Subject Category
Spacecraft Propulsion and Power
Meeting Information
2012 IEEE Aerospace Conference(Big Sky, MT)
Distribution Limits
In-space Propulsion