Using solar-sail induced dynamics to increase the warning time for solar storms heading towards earth

N.K.M. Bakx, M.J. Heiligers

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Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs), commonly referred to as solar storms, that are on an Earth-intersecting trajectory, may lead to the breakdown of power grid transformers, the malfunctioning of Earth-orbiting spacecraft, and disruptions in navigation and communication systems, among many other effects. The financial impact of a solar storm is predicted to be in the order of trillions of euros and the probability of such an event occurring within the next decade is 12%. With society relying ever-more on technology, the impact of a solar storm is ever-increasing. It is therefore essential that operators of vital infrastructure are notified of an approaching storm in a timely manner such that they can take adequate measures to mitigate the impact. This paper investigates the use of solar-sail technology to increase the warning time for CMEs heading towards Earth. The warning time is proportional to the distance from the Earth to the spacecraft detecting the CME: a current warning time of 30 to 60 minutes is achieved by satellites at or near the Sun-Earth L1 point. By considering the actual shape of a CME, the continuous solar-sail acceleration from the solar sail can be used to find a periodic trajectory that travels further upstream of the CME-axis, thereby increasing the warning time with respect to current missions. Finding a periodic solar-sail trajectory can be regarded as an optimal control problem, which requires a near-feasible initial-guess trajectory. The latter is found by generating heteroclinic connections between artificial equilibrium points in the vicinity of the sub-L1 and sub-L5 point through the use of a genetic algorithm. The optimal control problem is solved with a direct pseudospectral method, resulting in four representative trajectories, each having specific (dis)advantages. Ultimately, with near-term solar-sail technology (a lightness number of 0.05), the most optimal trajectory increases the average and maximum warning time by a factor 20 and 30 with respect to current missions at L1, respectively, with a 90% probability that the spacecraft detects the CME. Finally, the paper investigated a set of sensitivity analyses (non-ideal sail properties and change in lightness number) to successfully prove the robustness of the methodology and the effect of assumptions made.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationProceedings of the Aerospace Europe Conference 2021
Number of pages15
Publication statusPublished - 2021
EventAerospace Europe Conference 2021 - Warsaw, Poland
Duration: 23 Nov 202126 Nov 2021


ConferenceAerospace Europe Conference 2021


  • Solar storm
  • Solar sail
  • Trajectory optimisation
  • Pseudospectral collocation


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