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An Analysis of Thrust of a Realistic Solar Sail with Focus on a Flight Validation Mission in a Geocentric Orbit Open Access

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Several scientifically important space flight missions have been identified that, at this time, can only be practically achieved using a solar sail propulsion system. These missions take advantage of the potentially continuous force on the sail, provided by solar radiation, to produce significant changes in the spacecraft's velocity, in both magnitude and/or direction, without the need for carrying the enormous amount of fuel that conventional propulsion systems would require to provide the same performance. However, to provide thrust levels that would support these missions requires solar sail areas in the (tens of) thousands of square meter sizes. To realize this, many technical areas must be developed further and demonstrated in space before solar sails will be accepted as a viable space mission propulsion system. One of these areas concerns understanding the propulsion performance of a realistic solar sail well enough for mission planning. Without this understanding, solar sail orbits could not be predicted well enough to meet defined mission requirements, such as rendezvous or station-keeping, and solar sail orbit optimization, such as minimizing flight time, could be close to impossible. In most mission studies, either an "ideal" sail's performance is used for mission planning, or some top-level assumptions of certain non-ideal sail characteristics are incorporated to give a slightly better estimate of the sail performance. This paper identifies the major sources of solar sail thrust performance uncertainty, and analyzes the most significant ones to provide a more comprehensive understanding of thrust generation by a "realistic" solar sail. With this understanding, mission planners will be able to more confidently and accurately estimate the capabilities of such a system. The first solar sail mission will likely be a system validation mission, using a relatively small sail in a geocentric (Earth-centered) orbit. The author has been involved in conceptual design of such missions, and through this became aware of the current status in solar sail system development, and the need for a better understanding of the thrust performance of a "realistic" solar sail. Such a validation mission is significantly different than most of the "operational" science missions envisioned to utilize a solar sail propulsion system. These future missions will likely use very large, very light sails in heliocentric orbits far away from major gravity fields like planets, have very long mission lifetimes (years), and will conduct relatively minor and slow orbital and attitude control maneuvers. Nonetheless, most of the capabilities of later systems can be gleaned from a small geocentric validation mission. This paper is a significant step toward understanding the thrust characteristics and performance of a realistic solar sail, and provides insight to the methods by which this understanding can be corroborated by a solar sail validation mission.

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