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Tiny Spacecraft is ‘Solar Sailing’ in Orbit Using Only Sunlight, a Revolution in Space Exploration


An American astronomical society is proving that, like the Vikings of old, exploration of foreign shores, in this case foreign planets, is possible if you master the use of the humble cloth sail.

LightSail 2 artist rendering: CC Josh Spradling, The Planetary Society

LightSail 2, designed and funded by the Planetary Society, is a small spacecraft that has been moving at high speeds in Earth’s orbit and spinning in the direction capturing solar photons with a square sail the size of a boxing ring.

Launched in July 2019, the spacecraft has spent more than a year snaking around 186 miles (300 kilometers) above the International Space Station, 460 miles above Earth, producing a trove of scientific data that mission engineers of the Planetary Society will use. to advance humanity’s understanding of solar navigation; potentially, it will be a very important and reliable form of space travel for decades to come.

Now LightSail 2 is entering the extended mission phase, where scientists will study how things like orbital decay (the degree to which the spacecraft’s trajectory gradually drops, similar to how a hula hoop falls when it stops spinning) will affect the ship the size of a loaf of bread. as it slowly falls towards Earth and eventually burns upon reentering.

“During our extended mission, we will continue to make changes to our sail control software, which will help future solar sail missions to optimize their performance,” says Planetary Society Chief Scientist and LightSail 2 Program Manager Bruce Betts. .

The little ship moves at the whim of two powerful forces: gravity and the sun, which one could imagine acting like an ocean current and the wind.

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LightSail 2 is orbiting like a satellite around Earth, so scientists must steer, recharge batteries, and take pictures in response to where its orbit takes it, which due to the non-spherical nature of our planet is quite unstable.

However, for about 28 minutes of its 100-minute orbit, it can rotate its 34-square-meter sail, which instead of absorbing light like a normal cloth, repels it thanks to its reflective material called Mylar.

The momentum of the massless traveling photons bouncing off the sail gives it a slight push to steer itself during those 28 minutes, proving that solar navigation is viable for use in steering and propulsion of “CubeSats “Smaller satellites that will really push the limits of space exploration, especially since a solar navigating spacecraft doesn’t need chemical propulsion.

A year with heavenly winds

CC The Planetary Society

In 1608, Johannes Kepler theorized that ships’ sails could be adapted for “heavenly breezes” and 300 years later, fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke published “The Sunjammer”, about a solar sailboat.

The famous American astrophysicist Carl Sagan, co-founder of the Planetary Society, presented a model of a solar spacecraft that NASA had designed to visit Halley’s Comet in The show tonight with Johnny Carson in 1976, but only three years after Sagan’s death, the Society he helped start began designing the solar sailboats that would eventually lead to LightSail 1 and 2.

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With its sail and its small area-to-mass ratio, this spacecraft can withstand the drag of Earth’s atmosphere, which would have caused a normal satellite to fall back to the surface much faster. The Society had envisioned it collapsing now, but this new orbital decay timeline they are studying in the extended mission phase will provide NASA and other entities who want to deploy a solar sail spacecraft with invaluable calculations.

Future missions will take place in higher orbits, or even interplanetary trajectories, where there will likely be much more navigation than turning. NASA’s NEA Scout will travel on a Space Launch System rocket to an area near the Moon before deploying its solar saii to ride the cosmic winds on a visit to an asteroid.

LightSail 2 data directly supports NASA’s solar navigation programs that the agency describes as being capable of “making orbital plane changes more efficiently than spacecraft using conventional chemical propulsion” and “of achieving remarkable speeds, allowing rapid exploration of the outer solar system.”

It is a great achievement for the Planetary Society, which created the entire program, from the blueprints to the extended mission phase.

This body of work has spanned a decade, with just $ 7 million, raised from Planetary Society memberships, private donations, fundamental support, corporate partners, and a 2015 Kickstarter campaign that holds the most space-related Kickstarter record. successful in history; raising $ 1.24 million through 23,500 backers.

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“Even a year later, I am inspired and honored by the tens of thousands of passionate people who came together to make this mission a reality.” said Jennifer Vaughn, director of operations for the Planetary Society. “As we celebrate the success of LightSail 2’s flagship mission, we also celebrate the power of ordinary people working together to explore space.”

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