I'm seeking a software which helps in the visualization of solar sail trajectories.

If I'm not mistaken, the European Space Agency uses Celestia to render trajectories for the general public.

I know that Celestia allows one to define Keplerian orbits. Is it also possible to define non-Keplerian orbits and let the software compute and display the trajectory? My current idea is to use Matlab in order to generate a list of points of the orbit, and plot those in Celestia.

Is there a software which helps generate and visualize arbitrary non-Keplerian orbits? Specifically, I would like to compute several Earth Mars trajectories and make figures out of them to include them in a report.

My objective is to play around with several interplanetary cycling orbits which could be used by solar sails. Is there any software you would recommend for that? I do not mind using several different programs, e.g. one for generating a discrete list of points of an orbit, and another one for visualization.

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    $\begingroup$ Could you please clarify what you mean with "better" and why Celestia isn't suitable for your needs? I would recommend you check NASA's GMAT (General Mission Analysis Tool) which is open-source and also free, but if you're after visualisation alone, then IMHO Celestia provides nicer, visually more appealing images and is somewhat easier to use. $\endgroup$ – TildalWave May 5 '14 at 12:26
  • $\begingroup$ Does your solar sail scenario include tacking? $\endgroup$ – DJohnM May 5 '14 at 17:24
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    $\begingroup$ @ChrisR You can't "plunge towards the Sun" with a solar sail, the radiation pressure is always opposite to your normal. It would also be counterproductive to first lower your orbital altitude to later increase it towards Mars. I believe what you wanted to say is to use "heliocentric orbit cranking" to match required inclination to the ecliptic and at the same time increase orbital altitude? If you're launching from Earth towards Mars, there wouldn't be any "plunging towards the Sun" tho, you'd actually be increasing distance to the Sun. $\endgroup$ – TildalWave May 5 '14 at 21:45
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    $\begingroup$ Sorry, by tacking, I meant having the photon flux/solar wind hit the sail at other than perpendicularly... $\endgroup$ – DJohnM May 5 '14 at 22:38
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    $\begingroup$ @TildalWave, yes thanks for this correction. The plan is to investigate other trajectories than an Hohmann transfer and taking advantage of a continuous acceleration for making shortcuts. $\endgroup$ – ChrisR May 6 '14 at 10:06

If the plan is to keep the solar sail perpendicular to the photon flus, and simply furl and unfurl it (either partially or fully), then I think the problem is relatively simple: the orbits remain Keplerian.

The photons will exert a purely radial outward force, that varies with the photon intensity; in other words, it varies inversely with the square of the distance from the sun. It reduces the effective force of gravity without changing its behavior as a function of distance. The "sailing ship" would still be moving under a reduced net centripetal inverse square force. It could be mathematically modelled by simply reducing the mass of the Sun in Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation

For example. consider a ship in a circular orbit around the Sun at Earth's distance. Open the sail partially, and suddenly the ship's velocity is too high for its circular orbit under the reduced net centripetal force; instead it finds itself in an elliptical orbit, at perihelion. Keep the sail open at the correct fixed size, and the ship could follow that elliptical orbit until it reaches say, Mars' orbit, at aphelion. Open the sail further just the right amount, and the orbit becomes circular, but at a different velocity than Mars has...


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