Solar Sailing

Artwork comparing the Santa Maria sailing ship to a solar sail.

Just as sailboats are powered by the wind, space scientists and engineers dream of a day when spacecraft can be powered by solar sails. How would this work? The Sun blasts out radiation all the time. Radiation that strikes a large, shiny, sail-like structure would push on it, much as the wind pushes on a sailboat. Although the push would be very gentle, it would be constant. Over time, the spacecraft would be going very, very fast, using no fuel at all!

You may have heard of the "solar wind." Solar wind is made of particles blasted out from the Sun. Solar sails do not "catch the solar wind." Instead, solar sails use the force of the light itself. This force is much stronger than the force from the solar wind.