Solar Sails in Science Fiction

From_the_Earth_to_the_Moon_Jules_Verne

As promising—and romantic—a technology as solar sails are, it’s perhaps not surprising that they have found their way into fiction numerous times. Perhaps the first mention of the idea of using light to propel a spacecraft is in Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon. In Verne’s novel, a giant cannon is used to send a spacecraft to the moon. However, Verne writes that such a projectile has limited velocity. “Is it not evident, then, I ask you, that there will some day appear velocities far greater than these, of which light or electricity will probably be the mechanical agent?” asks Verne. The thing is, Jules Verne was right on top of the scientific achievements of his day. He knew that James Clerk Maxwell had recently discovered that light exerts a pressure on objects.

Lady Who Sailed

Compelling as this idea is, it seems that no one pursued it further until an engineer named Carl Wiley wrote an article for Astounding Science Fiction in 1951 about how solar sails could be built in orbit and used for space travel. The article was called “Clipper Ships in Space” and was written under the pseudonym Russell Saunders. This article influenced more than one science fiction writer. The first was Cordwainer Smith who published the story “The Lady Who Sailed The Soul” in Galaxy Magazine in 1960. The story was mostly about the romance of two characters, but it also does a fairly good job of describing a solar sail spaceship.

The next appearance of a solar sail in science fiction was in Pierre Boulle’s novel Planet of the Apes in 1963. To quote from the novel: “In those times, interplanetary travel was commonplace, though interstellar ventures were still an exception. Rocket ships would take the tourists to fabulous locations on Sirius or the finance people to the stock markets of Arcturus and Aldebaran. But Jinn and Phyllis, a wealthy and free couple, were known through the Cosmos to be young originals, with a bit of craziness, and they would cruise through the Universe just for the fun of it—with their sailcraft.” Boulle then goes on to describe the craft: “Their ship was a kind of sphere with a shell—the sail—made of amazingly thin material, and it would move through space, just pushed by the pressure of light beams.”

Boys Life Sunjammer

A year later, Arthur C. Clarke published the story “The Sunjammer” in Boy’s Life Magazine that told the story of seven solar sails racing from the Earth to the Moon. This story in particular captured many scientists’ imaginations and caused them to seriously ask the question of whether or not these kinds of craft could be developed. In fact, NASA’s first solar sail mission to deep space has been dubbed “Sunjammer” in Clarke’s honor. You can visit the project’s homepage at: sunjammermission.com

Light sails have continued to appear in science fiction since then. Notable appearances include the episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine called “Explorers” and Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. No doubt solar sails will continue to appear in science fiction. My own novel, The Solar Sea, about a solar sail spacecraft that’s used to explore the outer planets was published in 2009. You can read more about it at thesolarsea.com

Science and science fiction are closely intertwined with solar sails. In the middle of the nineteenth century, James Clerk Maxwell discovered that light exerted a pressure on objects. Soon after, Jules Verne posited that such a force could be used to move a spacecraft. In the 1950s an engineer published an article about light sails in a science fiction magazine and a few years later, science fiction writers were publishing stories about such craft. Now, scientists and engineers are working to turn the idea of solar sails into reality while science fiction writers continue to dream of sailing to distant planets and star systems.

The Solar Sea

Is there something about solar sails you’d like to know and I didn’t cover? Let me know in comments and I’ll see if I can find out for you and post next week. I’ve already been asked how to steer a solar sail. I’ll do my best to explain!

My novel The Solar Sea is available at:

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5 comments on “Solar Sails in Science Fiction

  1. nrlymrtl says:

    I recently finished Verne’s 20K Under the Sea and was impressed by the amount of marine science that he captured in the book. Of course, it is all a bit dated now, but at the time of original publication, it must have been an inspiration t many scientists. So now I want to check out his From The Earth to the Moon to see what science bits he built into that story, including solar sails.

    Great article. I love reading how literature affects the world.

    • Thanks! As for Verne’s 20,000 Leagues, I highly recommend the edition edited by Walter James Miller and Frederick Paul Walter published by the Naval Institute Press. Imminently readable and the footnotes do an excellent job elaborating on the science at the time. Walter James Miller also translated and annotated “From the Earth to the Moon” – that’s the version I read. I still need to read the sequel: “Round the Moon.” The solar sail bit in Verne is kind of a throwaway line and sort of whimsical based on his own love of the sea, but still, it’s interesting to see that he was thinking about sails that could be propelled by an electromagnetic force like light so early.

  2. Lysander says:

    Is it possible for Solar sails to be used in orbit on a airship
    something like the ones in John Carter

    • Lysander says:

      Is it possible for Solar sails to be used in atmosphere on a airship
      something like the ones in John Carter

    • Thanks for dropping by. Unfortunately, solar sails won’t work on an airship because air pressure is many orders magnitude greater than light pressure. Even if we assume the low pressure of Mars’ real atmosphere instead of the breathable atmosphere of John Carter, it would still be too much. Solar sails are really only practical in the vacuum of space where you don’t have to deal with gravity or air.

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