Evolution of Solar Sails for Space Travel (Photos)

Sails for the Space Age


On Earth, sails tap the wind's power to push ships across oceans. In space, solar sails use the sun's light to fly through space. See how solar sail technology has come of age in the 21st century in this gallery of actual space missions and potential future exploration.

Japan's Ikaros Solar Sail in Space


The world's first solar sail to fly in deep space, Japan's Ikaros, is seen in this self-portrait view taken on June 14, 2010, after sail deployment.

Solar Sail in Space


The Sunjammer project, slated to launch in 2014, will demonstrate "propellantless propulsion" offered by solar sails.

Sunjammer Solar Sail Prototype

NASA and L’Garde

An early prototype of L’Garde solar sail is evaluated in a vacuum chamber at the NASA Glenn Research Center’s Plum Brook Facility in Sandusky, Ohio. This test article is a quarter the size of the sail the company plans to fly in 2016.

Japan's Ikaros Solar Sail at Venus


This photo shows Japan's Ikaros solar sail as it sailed by the planet Venus (which appears as the crescent at upper right) on Dec. 8, 2010. The Ikaros solar sail was about 80,000 kilometers from Venus during the flyby.

World's First Solar Sail Photographed in Deep Space


A tiny cylindrical space camera detached itself from Japan's new solar sail and snapped some photos of the mission bound for Venus and beyond in June 2010.

NanoSail-D Deployed in Earth Orbit


NASA's NanoSail-D soars in Earth orbit in 2011 in this artist's illustration.

Japan's Ikaros Solar Sail in Space


The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's Ikaros solar sail is seen in deep space after its deployment on June 14, 2010, in this view taken from a small camera ejected by the sail.

NanoSail-D Solar Sail Spotted by AuroraCam in Finland

Arto Oksanen

This image captured by skywatcher Arto Oksanen in Finland shows NASA's solar sail satellite NanoSail-D as it appeared in aurora-watching cameras on Feb. 24, 2011 at the Nyrölä Observatory.

NanoSail-D Solar Sail Spotted by Skywatcher

Arto Oksanen

Skywatcher Arto Oksanen snapped this photo of NASA's NanoSail-D solar sail while observing from the Nyrölä Observatory in Finland.

Japanese Solar Sail Headed for Venus and Beyond


Japan's Ikaros became the first successful solar sail flight using sunlight propulsion, and the first interplanetary sail, during its 2010 mission.

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Space.com is the premier source of space exploration, innovation and astronomy news, chronicling (and celebrating) humanity's ongoing expansion across the final frontier. Originally founded in 1999, Space.com is, and always has been, the passion of writers and editors who are space fans and also trained journalists. Our current news team consists of Editor-in-Chief Tariq Malik; Editor Hanneke Weitering, Senior Space Writer Mike Wall; Senior Writer Meghan Bartels; Senior Writer Chelsea Gohd, Senior Writer Tereza Pultarova and Staff Writer Alexander Cox, focusing on e-commerce. Senior Producer Steve Spaleta oversees our space videos, with Diana Whitcroft as our Social Media Editor.