Radiation Pressure by Absorption (using classical electromagnetism: waves)


Radiation pressure is the pressure exerted upon any surface exposed to electromagnetic radiation. Radiation pressure implies an interaction between electromagnetic radiation and bodies of various types, including clouds of particles or gases. The interactions can be absorption, reflection, or some of both (the common case). Bodies also emit radiation and thereby experience a resulting pressure.

The forces generated by radiation pressure are generally too small to be detected under everyday circumstances; however, they do play a crucial role in some settings, such as astronomy and astrodynamics. For example, had the effects of the sun’s radiation pressure on the spacecraft of the Viking program been ignored, the spacecraft would have missed Mars orbit by about 15,000 kilometers.

This article addresses the macroscopic aspects of radiation pressure. Detailed quantum mechanical aspects of interactions are addressed in specialized articles on the subject. The details of how photons of various wavelengths interact with atoms can be explored through links in the See also section.

According to Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism, an electromagnetic wave carries momentum, which can be transferred to a reflecting or absorbing surface hit by the wave.

The energy flux (intensity) is expressed by the Poynting vector S=E x H whose magnitude we denote by S. S divided by the square of the speed of light in free space is the density of the linear momentum of the electromagnetic field. The time-averaged intensity <S> divided by the speed of light in free space is the radiation pressure exerted by an electromagnetic wave on the surface of a target, if the wave is completely absorbed.

Related formulas


PabsorbRadiation pressure (Pa)
EfEnergy flux (W/m2)
cSpeed of light
aThe angle between the surface normal and the incident radiation (degrees)