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Lesson Plan: Solar sails

June 5, 2000
Web posted at 11:21 p.m. EST (0321 GMT)

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Students will:

  • Define and give current examples of alternative propulsion methods.
  • Explore the advantages and disadvantages of various methods of propulsions.


Benchmarks for Science Literacy

High school students recognize that in deciding on proposals to introduce new technologies or to curtail existing ones, some key questions arise concerning alternatives, risks, costs and benefits. What alternative ways are there to achieve the same ends, and how do the alternatives compare to the plan being put forward?

Suggested time

2 class periods


CNNfyi article, "Space odysseys"
Internet access
Video camera


1. Have students read the CNNfyi article "Space odysseys." Then ask:

  • What is jet propulsion? How is it used? What energy source will propel the proposed solar sail? Why do you think a solar source is a better choice for propulsion? What would be the significance of a perpendicular orbit around the sun?
2. Direct students to Internet sites below to research alternative methods of propulsion. Allow groups of four to five students to decide upon a method of propulsion to improve upon or create. Have each group compile a list of advantages and disadvantages of their design. Inform students that they will present their design to the class. Give students the opportunity to create sketches, renderings and/or graphic productions of their designs. Share with students the following considerations:
  • the environmental impact of the method (How will it affect humanity?)
  • the practicality of the method (Is it an efficient, viable alternative?)
  • the creativity of the method (Is the method innovative enough to appeal to the scientific community?)


Have groups present their designs to the class. If possible, have students videotape presentations.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory
NASA's Aerospace Technology Enterprise
Types of solar sails
Voyager home page

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