Solar sails could power future planetary missions

‘Data clippers’ powered by solar sails could be exploring the outer planets within twenty years, shipping vast quantities of scientific data back to Earth.

According to Joel Poncy of , the technology could be ready in time to support mid-term missions to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

“Space-rated flash memories will soon be able to store the huge quantities of data needed for the global mapping of planetary bodies in high resolution,” he says. 

“But a full high-res map of, say, Europa or Titan, would take several decades to download from a traditional orbiter, even using very large antennae.  Downloading data is the major design driver for interplanetary missions.  We think that data clippers would be a very efficient way of overcoming this bottleneck.”

But Poncy says that a clipper could fly close to a planetary orbiter, upload its data and fly by Earth, downloading terabytes of data  to the ground station.

“We have looked at the challenges of a data clipper mission and we think that it could be ready for a launch in the late 2020s. This means that the technology should be included now in the roadmap for future missions,” he says.

Poncy’s team has drawn up a set of requirements for the communications systems and tracking devices that a data clipper would need, as well as the flyby conditions and pointing accuracy required for the massive data transfers.


“Using the Sun as a propulsion source has the considerable advantage of requiring no propellant on board,” says Poncy. 

“As long as the hardware doesn’t age too much and the spacecraft is manoeuvrable, the duration of the mission can be very long. The use of data clippers could lead to a valuable downsizing of exploration missions and lower ground operation costs – combined with a huge science return.”

The Japanese Space Agency, JAXA, is currently testing a solar sail mission, IKAROS.