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Solar-Photon Hoop Sails For Extrasolar Travel

The solar-photon hoop sail idea was once again advanced by CUNY physicist Gregory Matloff at the Second Solar Sail Symposium held last month in New York City.

A solar-photon hoop sail consists of a thin reflective membrane within a supporting, possibly inflatable hoop. Hoop sails may be an alternative to parachute and hollow-body sails for extra-solar application. In all likelihood, payload would be suspended from the rim... Hoop sails appear to have competitive performance to parachute and hollow-body sails. They are easier to deploy than parachute sails, and are less susceptible to micrometeoroid damage than hollow-body sails. Scaling hoop sails from small test items to very large radii seems possible.
(From The Hoop Solar-Photon Sail and Extrasolar Travel [PDF})

The idea for hoop-shaped solar sails was first placed before a larger audience (and specifically the sf community) in a 1951 paper Clipper Ships of Space, published in Astounding Science Fiction by engineer Carl Wiley. The idea of a starlight sail or light sail was later picked up by sf writer Cordwainer Smith in his 1960 story The Lady Who Sailed The Soul. which explicitly details the use of solar sails in extrasolar travel. Matloff provides an analysis of this possibility in his paper.

Massaging the numbers for a hoop sail to deep space, Matloff comes up with a ‘sundiver’ trajectory that allows a hoop sail spacecraft to exit the Solar System at about 635 kilometers per second (130 AU per year). This is sufficient to reach the inner fringe of the Oort Cloud in several decades, while a crossing to the Centauri system would involve 2,000 years. That’s about twice the time for an optimized mission with a space-manufactured sail.
(From Hoop Sails: An Interstellar Possibility? [Centauri Dreams])

Just two years later, in 1962, Jack Vance published Sail 25, an excellent short story that provides a fairly meticulous description of a hoop sail:

The pressure of radiation, of course, is extremely light - on the order of an ounce per acre at this distance from the sun. Necessarily, the sail must be extremely large and extremely light. We use a fluro-siliconic film a tenth of a mil in gauge, fogged with lithium to the state of opacity. Such a foil weighs about four tons to the square mile. It is fitted to a hoop of thin-walled tubing, from which mono-crystalline iron cords lead to the hull.
(Read more about Vance's hoop light sail)

In the story, Vance ups the ante for a group of space cadets under the tutelage of grizzled spaceman Henry Belt, making it clear that poor solar sailing could result in visiting the outer planets or even leaving the solar system entirely.

Matloff concludes:

The performance of a hoop sail will be competitive with other solar-photon-sail interstellar configurations. The payload fraction is lower than that of certain other configurations, which may not be a disadvantage since sail mass can be used as cosmic-ray shielding during the interstellar cruise.
Advantages of the hoop sail over the parachute sail include scalability and ease of deployment. The hoop sail is less susceptible to micrometeoroid-caused deflation than the hollow-body sail.
A ripstop array is almost certainly necessary to prevent sail ripping due to micrometeoroid impacts. Such an array will increase total mass spacecraft mass and degrade performance by only a few percent.
The work presented here should be viewed as a very preliminary analysis. Much additional research is required before interstellar hoop sails can be declared feasible.
(From The Hoop Solar-Photon Sail and Extrasolar Travel [PDF})

Take a look at Matloff's paper The Hoop Solar-Photon Sail and Extrasolar Travel (PDF) via Centauri Dreams via Atomic Rockets.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 8/13/2010)

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