Date of Award


Degree Name

MS in Aerospace Engineering


Aerospace Engineering


Kira Jorgensen Abercromby


Solar sails have the potential to benefit many future space exploration missions, but they lack the heritage required for present-day use. To grow confidence in solar sail technology, they could be deployed on LEO satellites higher than 600 km to help de-orbit the satellite within 25 years upon mission termination. To determine how atomic oxygen would affect the solar sail, material from Lightsail-2 was tested in a thermal-energy, isotropic, atomic oxygen vacuum chamber based in the space environments laboratory in California Polytechnic State University. The sail material, aluminized Mylar, was tested for its survivability on both the coated and uncoated side, as well as tested for the optical degradation of the coated side. The uncoated side was found to be completely eroded after a fluence of 2.27 x1020 atoms/cm2, or ~40 days in International Space Station orbit. The coated side experienced no mass loss, but signs of significant undercutting were found with a fluence of 1.19 x1021 atoms/cm2, or ~200 days at station orbit. The stitches present on the coated side, meant to prevent tear propagation, eroded before the sample experienced a fluence of 4.13 x1020 atoms/cm2, or ~70 days at station orbit. The average total reflectivity of the material dropped by ~5% after atomic oxygen exposure, however no correlation with fluence was found. Average specular reflectivity remained unchanged after atomic oxygen exposure. The reflectivity results were impacted by wrinkling in the material, which was found to have a much larger impact than atomic oxygen exposure. These results were paired with an optimal de-orbit trajectory algorithm, developed in this thesis, to determine how atomic oxygen would affect a solar sail deployed to de-orbit an 800 km LEO satellite with a ballistic coefficient of 0.1. Using a simplified 2D orbit case, it was found that the satellite would de-orbit within 12-18 years, depending primarily on the solar activity level. The measured worst-case for optical degradation increased de-orbit time by ~6 months. Additionally, assuming that the sail material was perfectly reflecting decreased de-orbit time by 2-4 years. The amount of fluence required to erode the uncoated Mylar, and the amount required to erode the stitches, were both reached long before the satellite re-entered. It is therefore recommended that the solar sail minimize uncoated side exposure to atomic oxygen, and a more atomic oxygen-resistant stitch material be found. The fluence required to produce significant material undercutting was reached only once the satellite’s orbit had degraded to below 400 km. But the undercutting was observed to structurally compromise the material; thus, future LEO solar sail mission designers must take care when balancing added performance with higher failure risk when considering the tension in the deployed sail.