LightSail 2 solar spacecraft proves viability of ‘flight by light’

Flight by light success Planetary Societys Light Sail 2 powers flight with Suns

Flight by light success Planetary Societys Light Sail 2 powers flight with Suns

Since then, LightSail 2 has raised its orbit by 1.7 kilometers (slightly over a mile), exclusively due to the pressure of photons.

Drawing on ten years of hard work and 7 million dollars in crowdfunding, the nonprofit Society's LightSail 2 has become the first small spacecraft to raise its orbit exclusively on the power of sunlight.

LightSail 2, the spacecraft the Planetary Society sent up to space approximately a month ago recently unfurled a light-catching sail and has been "raising its orbit exclusively on the power of sunlight". The satellite reached its intended orbit and, on June 23, it unfurled razor-thin sheets of polyester to form a 32-square-meter sail.

Last week, The Planetary Society announced the craft had successfully deployed its sail. And so far, this orbital dance has worked.

The prototype spacecraft is the work of the Planetary Society, an global nonprofit headed by famed science communicator Bill Nye.

"We're thrilled to announce mission success for LightSail 2", said Bruce Betts, LightSail program manager and the Society's chief scientist, in a statement.

LightSail 2, which is controlled autonomously via software, does not have the precision to maintain a circular orbit.

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As packets of light energy known as photons bounce off the sail, they transfer their momentum in the opposite direction, pushing the vessel along with a thrust that is tiny but unlimited. And this light can actually push on objects in space. As long as photons hit the sail, the spacecraft will endlessly continue to accelerate - at least in theory.

Bill Nye attends WE Day California at The Forum on April 25, 2019 in Inglewood, California. "This idea that you could fly a spacecraft with nothing but photons is surprising, and for me, it's very romantic that you could be sailing on sunbeams".

Flight by light, or "sailing on sunbeams", as Nye said, could best be used for missions carrying cargo in space or on small satellites with enough room for deploying larger, and thus more powerful, solar sails. CubeSats have become a great tool for companies, researchers, and more who want to gather data from space using a relatively affordable spacecraft that is easy to build.

Maneuvering small satellites like this through space is hard. That can be a costly addition to a spacecraft, and the propellant needed for these thrusters add weight, which is precious when launching things off of Earth. Planetary Society had hoped to reach that milestone years earlier, but its first solar sail was destroyed during a rocket explosion in 2005. And Nye says it cost $7 million to pull off - about one-twentieth the cost it would have been had the organization done this with an average-sized spacecraft, he claims. However, that mission was never meant to actually use the sail.

"We've been working since sail deployment to refine the way the spacecraft tracks the sun", project manager Dave Spencer said.

From 26 July to 30 July, LightSail 2 raised its orbital high point, or apogee, by about 2 kilometers. This is the first time solar propulsion has been successfully demonstrated in Earth's orbit. Soon, the thin atmosphere will drag LightSail 2 down and the vehicle - with its sail - will burn up on reentry.

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