I tried to answer Equation for Velocity and distance from Sun of a solar sail powered spacecraft but I'm missing something.

I set up a math solution and got about 0.4 year to reach zero velocity based on the vis-viva equation. I've obviously made some mistake in assumptions because it means it's in a circular orbit with zero velocity meaning infinite distance, and infinite distance at finite time is bad.

When I solve numerically I get a similar number of about 0.5 years to reach a positive energy, heliocentric C3, escape velocity, etc., and this simulation I believe.

Question: Why did my vis-viva math solution get so close despite being wrong? Under what conditions would it have been a good approximation?

This answer says:


Given initial acceleration at 1 AU is $8.17 \times 10^{-4} m/s^2$.

Tilt it at 45 degrees to make the thrust tangential, divide by $\sqrt{2}$ since its now oblique to the Sun, and account for drop off with distance from the Sun:

$$a_0 = 5.78 \times 10^{-4} m/s^2$$

$$a(r) = a_0 \frac{AU^2}{r^2}$$

in the prograde direction (same direction as current velocity).

vis-viva equation:

$$v^2 = \frac{GM}{r}$$


$$\frac{dv}{dt} = -\frac{a_0 AU^2}{GM^2} v^4$$

where $GM$ is the Sun's standard gravitational parameter $1.327 \times 10^{20} m^3/s^2$. The minus sign comes in because we know that contrary to first instinct, when we have an accelerating force in the prograde direction we counterintuitively decelerate b the same amount. This is cited in several other posts here as well, I'll look for some other answers to cite...

Rewrite and solve:

$$\frac{dt}{dv} = -\frac{GM^2}{a_0 AU^2} v^{-4}$$

$$t(v) = t_0 - \frac{GM^2}{4 a_0 AU^2} v^{-3}$$

If we set $t(v_0) = 0$ in other words at time zero we are moving at orbital velocity $v_0 = \sqrt{GM/AU}$ we get 0.408 years.


Interestingly when I try to simulate the same thing numerically, I get an escape time of 0.515 years! This surprises me for two reasons:

  1. Velocity never reaches zero, meaning the math above is wrong!
  2. And yet it's fairly close!


It will take roughly half a year to escape, but I don't have the full equation yet.

Further reading:

solar sail escape

import numpy as np
import matplotlib.pyplot as plt
from scipy.integrate import odeint as ODEint

AU = 150E+06 * 1000   # meters
GM = 1.327E+20   # m^3/s^2
a0 = 8.17E-04 / np.sqrt(2)  # dv/dt at 1 AU
year = 365.2564 * 24 * 3600 

coef = ( GM**2 / (4 * a0 * AU**2) )

v0 = np.sqrt(GM/AU)
print('v0: ', v0)
print('coef: ', coef)

t0 = coef / v0**3
print('t0 / year: ', t0 / year)

def deriv(X, t):
    x, v = X.reshape(2, -1)
    vhat = v / np.sqrt((v**2).sum())
    rsq = (x**2).sum()
    acc_thrust = vhat * a0 * rsq / AU**2
    acc = acc_thrust - GM * x * rsq**-1.5
    return np.hstack((v, acc))

X0 = np.array([AU, 0, 0, v0])

time = np.linspace(0, 0.6, 10001) * year  # half year

answer, info = ODEint(deriv, X0, time, full_output=True)


x, y, vx, vy = answer.T
r, speed = [np.sqrt((thing**2).sum(axis=0))
            for thing in answer.T.reshape(2, 2, -1)]

E = 0.5 * speed**2 - GM/r
E_norm = np.abs(E[0])

i_esc = np.argmax(E>=0)
things = time, r, x, y, speed, E
t_esc, r_esc, x_esc, y_esc, s_esc, E_esc = [thing[i_esc]
                                            for thing in things]

print('t_esc / year: ', t_esc / year)

if True:
    plt.subplot(2, 2, 1)
    plt.plot(time/year, r/AU)
    plt.plot([t_esc/year], [r_esc/AU], 'ok')
    plt.xlabel('time (years)')
    plt.subplot(2, 2, 2)
    plt.plot(time/year, speed/1000)
    plt.plot([t_esc/year], [s_esc/1000], 'ok')
    plt.ylabel('speed (km/s)')
    plt.xlabel('time (years)')

    plt.subplot(2, 2, 3)
    plt.plot(time/year, E/E_norm)
    plt.plot([t_esc/year], [E_esc/E_norm], 'ok')
    plt.plot(time/year, np.zeros_like(time), '-k')
    plt.ylabel('Energy (norm)')
    plt.xlabel('time (years)')

    plt.subplot(2, 2, 4)
    plt.plot(x/AU, y/AU)
    plt.plot([x_esc/AU], [y_esc/AU], 'ok')
    plt.plot([0], [0], 'oy')
    th = np.linspace(0, 2*np.pi, 201)
    plt.plot(np.cos(th), np.sin(th), '-r', linewidth=0.5)
    plt.ylim(-1, 1.5)
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "Tilt it at 45 degrees to make the thrust tangential" - tangential to what? Perpendicular to the direction to the Sun? That's impossible. $\endgroup$
    – asdfex
    Commented Dec 12, 2020 at 9:49
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Why do you assume that there is a deceleration if you accelerate prograde? $\endgroup$
    – asdfex
    Commented Dec 12, 2020 at 10:01
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Third issue: This vis-viva equation is only valid for a perfectly circular orbit. After any thrust applied in any direction it's not valid any more. $\endgroup$
    – asdfex
    Commented Dec 12, 2020 at 16:49
  • $\begingroup$ @asdfex write it up as an answer! $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Dec 12, 2020 at 21:58
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @ConnorGarcia Yes, but only it it's more complicated form, not in the reduced one used here. $\endgroup$
    – asdfex
    Commented Dec 13, 2020 at 17:20

1 Answer 1


First, you appear to have the following misunderstanding of the solar sail force vectors:

Tilt it at 45 degrees to make the thrust tangential

Thrust is not tangential at 45 degrees.

wrong vectors

In fact, a solar sail always has thrust perpendicular to the sail, and can thus not achieve thrust perfectly tangential to the Sun, since the cross section would then be zero.

Your handling of the 45 degree angle is also off. The magnitude of the thrust vector scales by $\cos^2(\theta)$, since you have both the cross section area shrinking, and the light keeping more of its original momentum with a larger angle.

Which means you have a tangential component of $\cos^2(\theta) \sin(\theta)$ (half your value), and a radial component of $\cos^3(\theta)$ (which you have not accounted for).

This has significant impact on your next part, which assumes a circular orbit. With radial acceleration, the orbit can not remain circular, which invalidates the vis-viva argument you are making. Another issue here is that the special case of vis-viva you are using only applies to the velocity of circular orbits. For this approximation to make sense, you would have to guarantee that the orbit stays roughly circular, which is hard since there's always radial thrust from the sail.

Your code looks like it also depends on the bogus differential equation derived from the initial flawed model of a solar sail.

To answer:

Why did my vis-viva math solution get so close despite being wrong?

It's probably not close, since it's compared to an alternate calculation that's based on the very same flaw.

  • $\begingroup$ "tangential to the sail" - I believe you mean perpendicular. $\endgroup$
    – IronEagle
    Commented Dec 12, 2020 at 17:35

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