We’re all familiar with the idea of solar sails to explore the Solar System, using the light pressure from the Sun. But there’s another propulsion system that could harness the power of the Sun, electric sails, and it’s a pretty exciting idea.
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A few weeks ago, I tackled a question someone had about my favorite exotic propulsion systems, and I rattled off a few ideas that I find exciting: solar sails, nuclear rockets, ion engines, etc. But there’s another propulsion system that keeps coming up, and I totally forgot to mention, but it’s one of the best ideas I’ve heard in awhile: electric sails.
As you probably know, a solar sail works by harnessing the photons of light streaming from the Sun. Although photons are massless, they do have momentum, and can transfer it when they bounce off a reflective surface.
In addition to light, the Sun is also blowing off a steady stream of charged particles – the solar wind. A team of engineers from Finland, led by Dr. Pekka Janhunen, has proposed building an electric sail that will use these particles to carry spacecraft out into the Solar System.