Solar sails are a case of science fiction anticipating the scientific journals, though in an odd way. Engineer Carl Wiley (writing as Russell Saunders) described the physics of solar sailing and some early engineering concepts in the pages of John Campbell’s Astounding back in 1951, but he did it in a nonfiction article of the kind the magazine routinely ran. Richard Garwin would discuss sails in the scientific literature in “Solar Sailing: A Practical Method of Propulsion within the Solar System,” which ran in 1958 in the journal Jet Propulsion.
Then we waited for fictional treatments, which began with Cordwainer Smith’s wonderful “The Lady Who Sailed the Soul” (Galaxy, April 1960) and a string of stories from top authors of the time in just a few quick years — Jack Vance’s “Gateway to Strangeness” (Amazing Stories, 1962), Poul Anderson’s “Sunjammer” (Analog 1964), Arthur C. Clarke’s story of the same name, later renamed “The Wind from the Sun” (Boy’s Life, 1964). Sails of the solar kind had definitely arrived.
Because he is a personal favorite, let me run a clip from the Jack Vance story, which later became known as “Sail 25” (available in various places, but most easily in the 1976 collection The Best of Jack Vance). This is what solar sailing looked like in the days when the nautical metaphor was just beginning to be explored, and a fictional crew is learning, with the help of space veteran Henry Belt, to handle the unusual demands of sail deployment.
“Around the hull swung the gleaming hoop, and now the carrier brought up the sail, a great roll of darkly shining stuff. When unfolded and unrolled, and unfolded many times more it became a tough gleaming film, flimsy as gold leaf. Unfolded to its fullest extent it was a shimmering disk, already rippling and bulging to the light of the sun. The cadets fitted the film to the hoop, stretched it taut as a drum-head, cemented it in place. Now the sail must carefully be held edge on to the sun, or it would quickly move away, under a thrust of about a hundred pounds.
“From the rim braided-iron threads were led to a ring at the back of the parabolic reflector, dwarfing this as the reflector dwarfed the hull, and now the sail was ready to move.
“The carrier brought up a final cargo: water, food, spare parts, a new magazine for the microfilm viewer, mail. Then Henry Belt said, ‘Make sail.’”
It sounded complicated in 1962, but in the era of the IKAROS sail, we’ve learned how tricky actual deployment is, and also how incredibly thin high-performance sails will need to be, particularly as we look toward future missions with cutting-edge materials. Geoff Landis, for example, has examined sails of niobium, beryllium and transparent films of dielectric (non-conducting) materials like silicon carbide, zirconia and diamond-like carbon — a material much like diamond — that could be assembled in space with a plastic substrate.
James Davis Nicoll recently wrote up some examples of sails in science fiction that include the early ones mentioned above, but also more recent work like the novels in Vonda McIntyre’s ‘Starfarers’ sequence and the 1974 tale “The Mountains of Sunset, the Mountains of Dawn.” Also catching Nicoll’s attention is Joan D. Vinge’s “View from a Height,” which should interest anyone exploring the human motivations for immense journeys, and Alastair Reynolds’ Revenger (2016). I hope readers will supply some of their own favorites in science fictional sails. Laser sails play a prominent role in Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye (1974), for example, the ‘mote’ being evidence of a sail heading in our direction. And then there’s Forward’s Rocheworld… The list is extensive!
Image: Poul Anderson’s “Sunjammer” appeared in April, 1964, about a month after Arthur C. Clarke’s story of that name, and to make matters even more confusing, ran under the pseudonym ‘Winston P. Sanders.’ Both stories were milestones in early sail depictions.
Like Nicoll, I’m looking back at sail technologies partly because we’re coming up on the launch of The Planetary Society’s LightSail 2, which is now scheduled for no earlier than June 24 aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy. The CubeSat spacecraft about the size of a loaf of bread and weighing 5 kilograms will deploy a small sail and attempt to raise its orbit by the momentum imparted by solar photons. I’m a great partisan of CubeSats, particularly those with sail capabilities, for fleets of the inexpensive spacecraft, further miniaturized, networked and tapping solar radiation, can become a great way to deploy sensors all through the inner system.
LightSail is no 5,000-mile behemoth, like the staggering sail of Cordwainer Smith’s story — its four booms will unfurl four triangular panels with a combined area of 32 square meters, and as The Planetary Society’s Jason Davis tells us, the craft will receive a push ‘no stronger than the weight of a paperclip.’ But continual thrust is just the ticket as the effects mount up, and LightSail 2 will be in an orbit high enough (720 kilometers) that the effects of atmospheric drag can be overcome. Expect LightSail 2 to be deployed from the Prox-1 spacecraft that encloses it about seven days after launch. All good wishes on the attempt!
Image: Prox-1 deploys the LightSail 2 spacecraft in Earth orbit. Credit: The Planetary Society (CC BY-NC 3.0).