With solar sails being so thin, how do they avoid being punctured by tiny space debris?

With solar sails being so thin, how do they avoid being punctured by tiny space debris?

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15 Comments


  1. undercoveryankee

    July 18, 2017 at 11:03 pm

    Answered for the Planetary Society’s LightSail project at http://sail.planetary.org/faq.html. Their sails use rip-stop construction so that a pinhole doesn’t develop into a large-scale tear, and they can accept several localized holes without losing mission effectiveness.

  2. CreatureOfPrometheus

    July 18, 2017 at 11:03 pm

    They don’t. Depending on the environment (low Earth orbit, high Earth orbit, solar orbit…) there will be a flux of particles of various sizes, with a distribution of relative speeds. A thorough solar sail design would need to analyze the expected exposure over the mission lifetime and show that it can meet the mission requirements with that many holes 🙂

    Any big space structure (ISS for sure, probably JWST) does that kind of analysis. We’re still in the early days of solar sails (i.e. “let’s just get something up there and see how far we can get”), so there may be less emphasis on this level of analysis.

  3. filth_merchant

    July 18, 2017 at 11:03 pm

    Lots of great answers here, one thing I want to highlight is that when a wind sail is pierced it loses more effectiveness than the amount of area lost. This is because the difference in air pressure that causes the sail to generate lift also forces more through the gap, increasing drag and decreasing lift.

    With a solar sail it is generating impulse through radiation pressure, reflecting photons to gain momentum. This means as long as the sail is still structurally intact you get the full impulse from every photon that strikes the sail. Also there is no “photon drag” on the sail due to a non aerodynamic surface.

    It’s a case where the name analogy breaks down because each propulsion method is different in a pretty fundamental way, despite a similar appearance.

  4. account_1100011

    July 18, 2017 at 11:03 pm

    They don’t avoid debris, except in the macro sense where they might avoid an area of known debris but that’s just thruster maneuvering.

    They actually are designed so that if you punch a hole in the panel only the local area to the damage stops working and the rest of the panel is unaffected.

  5. IchthysdeKilt

    July 18, 2017 at 11:03 pm

    Would something like two layers of graphene with a liquid between them work as a shielding? It seems like solid armors are insufficient for this kind of protection but dispersing the impact force through liquid could be more effective.

  6. florinandrei

    July 18, 2017 at 11:03 pm

    They don’t. They do get punctured. It’s just that the rate of damage is low enough that the performance of the sail is not impaired for the duration of a typical mission.

    Now, if the mission was supposed to last millions of years, then the damage might become very significant.

  7. kingtalon

    July 18, 2017 at 11:03 pm

    Shouldn’t the ISS already be destroyed by a tiny piece of debris within the same orbit? I mean with all the other successful/failed missions from other entities I thought there would be a fairly high chance of some random thing ramming it.

  8. justeversocurious

    July 18, 2017 at 11:03 pm

    My question is how it must be like to experience this whilst on the ISS. would it make a lot of noise? would it shake the station? how do the different sizes of projectiles affect the event?

  9. gkiltz

    July 18, 2017 at 11:03 pm

    Actually they don’t

    They just launch big enough solar panels that there can be light to moderate damage and the spacecraft will still have the power to complete it’s mission and last a little beyond just in case

  10. phazer29

    July 18, 2017 at 11:03 pm

    they don’t, it’s just that space is generally speaking pretty empty. Also, it wouldn’t do much damage. it’s like blimps, those things have tiny holes on them all the time, but the amount of air escaping is negligible

  11. [deleted]

    July 18, 2017 at 11:03 pm

    [removed]

  12. Gedz

    July 18, 2017 at 11:03 pm

    In all this discussion about space debris, I’m thinking that it won’t be long before space stations and satellites are equipped with laser weapons ( similar to what the US Navy is deploying–LAWS–) to destroy or deflect dangerous objects.

  13. jokoon

    July 18, 2017 at 11:03 pm

    Further question: how is the ISS hull protected against those debris? Isn’t it necessary to periodically repair it ?

  14. [deleted]

    July 18, 2017 at 11:03 pm

    [removed]

  15. Anonymous

    July 18, 2017 at 11:03 pm

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