Solar sailing cubesat spreads wings and flies

Planetary Society’s CEO Bill Nye “the science guy” solar sailing project finally unfurls

Solar sailing cubesat spreads wings and flies


Credit: Planetary Society

After years and many setbacks the Planetary Society’s test spacecraft deployed its 344 square foot solar sail in space over the weekend.

The society’s LightSail is a cubesat whose initial flight will begin to test the feasibility of using much larger solar sails for space voyages. The Solar sails use the sun’s energy or rather its light photons as a method of propulsion. The Planetary Society says that while photons have no mass, a photon traveling as a packet of light has energy and momentum.

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“Solar sail spacecraft capture light momentum with large, lightweight mirrored surfaces—sails. As light reflects off a sail, most of its momentum is transferred, pushing on the sail. The resulting acceleration is small, but continuous. Unlike chemical rockets that provide short bursts of thrust, solar sails thrust continuously and can reach higher speeds over time. Solar sailing is considered one possible means of interstellar space travel.”

The current test flight will not carry the spacecraft high enough to escape Earth’s atmospheric drag, and will thus not demonstrate controlled solar sailing, the Planetary Society stated. LightSail will test its attitude control system and study the behavior of the sails for a few days before it falls back into the planet’s atmosphere.

A mission expected to launch in 2016 will mark the first controlled, Earth-orbit solar sail flight and ride along with the first operational launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket. LightSail will team up with Prox-1, a small spacecraft designed by the Georgia Tech to demonstrate automated rendezvous and inspection techniques, the group stated.

Since its launch on May 20, LightSail has been dogged by glitches so it is great news for the organization that the test mission so far has been accomplished.

Bill Nye “The Science Guy”, CEO at The Planetary Society stated: “We couldn’t get signals to and from our LightSail on the first orbital pass, so we tried again on our next orbit— and it worked! We’ve learned a lot about perseverance on this test mission. Although it’s in inertial space, LightSail has had me on a rollercoaster. I want to thank the engineering team; they’ve done fantastic work. I especially want to thank our supporters and members, who made this success possible. We are advancing space science and exploration. This mission is part of our mission.”

The Planetary Society's solar sailing involvement was started by Society co-founder Louis Friedman more than a decade ago, but co-founder Carl Sagan championed solar sailing on a famous 1976 episode of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

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