Flexible models for solar sail control

Suzanne Weaver Smith, Haiping Song, John R. Baker, Jonathan Black, Danniella M. Muheim

Research output: Contribution to journalConference articlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


Solar sails employ a unique form of propulsion, gaining momentum from incident and reflected photons. However, the momentum transferred by an individual photon is extremely small. Consequently, a solar sail must have an extremely large surface area and also be extremely light. The flexibility of the sail then must be considered when designing or evaluating control laws. In this paper, solar sail flexibility and its influence on control effectiveness is considered using idealized two-dimensional models to represent physical phenomena rather than a specific design. Differential equations of motion are derived for a distributed parameter model of a flexible solar sail idealized as a rotating central hub with two opposing flexible booms. This idealization is appropriate for solar sail designs in which the vibrational modes of the sail and supporting booms move together allowing the sail mass to be distributed along the booms in the idealized model. A reduced analytical model of the flexible response is considered. Linear feedback torque control is applied at the central hub. Two translational disturbances and a torque disturbance also act at the central hub representing the equivalent effect of deflecting sail shape about a reference line. Transient simulations explore different control designs and their effectiveness for controlling orientation, for reducing flexible motion and for disturbance rejection. A second model also is developed as a two-dimensional "pathfinder" model to calculate the effect of solar sail shape on the resultant thrust, in-plane force and torque at the hub. The analysis is then extended to larger models using the finite element method. The finite element modeling approach is verified by comparing results from a two-dimensional finite element model with those from the analytical model. The utility of the finite element modeling approach for this application is then illustrated through examples based on a full finite element model.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)11-40
Number of pages30
JournalCollection of Technical Papers - AIAA/ASME/ASCE/AHS/ASC Structures, Structural Dynamics and Materials Conference
StatePublished - 2005
Event46th AIAA/ASME/ASCE/AHS/ASC Structures, Structural Dynamics and Materials Conference - Austin, TX, United States
Duration: Apr 18 2005Apr 21 2005

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Architecture
  • General Materials Science
  • Aerospace Engineering
  • Mechanics of Materials
  • Mechanical Engineering


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