Planetary Society’s solar space sail test succeeds

Privately funded spacecraft powered by solar radiation passes orbit test despite near-fatal software glitches

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Updated Jul 28, 2015

LightSail, an experimental spacecraft powered by a solar radiation sail, has passed a test three weeks after its deployment in space.

“We just could not be more pleased, especially after all the ups and downs that this project has been through,” LightSail project manager Doug Stetson told reporters on a conference call.

The 5 kg spacecraft was carried into space in a 10x10x3 centimeter box with an Atlas 5 rocket, in a classified mission undertaken by the US Air Force on May 20.

Following its deployment into orbit LightSail met with communication problems, software glitches and battery issues for three weeks.

“That was some white knuckle time," Stetson said. "We had very limited data to go on ... This has really been a roller coaster ride of emotions, a lot of sleepless nights for the operations and engineering team.”

Confirmation of the unfurling of the sail made from Mylar film – a special type of stretched polyester film used in helium balloons, space blankets, protective coatings and insulators – inally came with a picture of the LightSail on Tuesday.

“Getting that beautiful picture of the sail [on Tuesday] really made the whole thing worthwhile,” Stetson said.

The Planetary Society’s test in 2005 had failed due to a failure of the Russian rocket carrying it.

On 21 May 2010 Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency successfully tested the world’s first solar interstellar sail spacecraft IKAROS, which arrived at Venus on December 8 that year.

Solar sails, also known as light sails or photon sails, work on the principle of the wave-particle duality of photons. When photons emitted from the sun hits the sails, which are made of ultra-light mirrors, this creates radiation pressure which speeds up the spacecraft to higher velocities.

These experiments are especially important due to the low manufacture and design costs of solar sail, theoretically making intersolar space exploration available to smaller firms and individuals.

“Solar sailing is worth doing because it has the potential to democratise space,” said the society's chief executive officer and TV science celebrity Bill Nye.

The LightSail is expected to fall down to Earth this weekend due to its low orbit. The Planetary Society is planning a following mission next year at a higher orbit.

TRTWorld and agencies