Sunbeam-sailing spacecraft deemed 'mission success' in Earth orbit

By Joey Roulette

A small crowd-funded satellite promoted by TV host and science educator Bill Nye has been propelled into a higher orbit using only the force of sunlight blowing against its sail in space, a novel propulsion developers say could"democratize" spaceflight.

The Lightsail 2 spacecraft, roughly the size of a loaf of bread, was launched into orbit in June and unfurled a tin foil-like solar sail designed to steer and push the spacecraft, using the momentum of tiny particles of light called photons emanating from the sun, into a higher orbit.

The satellite was developed by the California-based space research and education non-profit group the Planetary Society, whose chief executive is the television personality popularly known as Bill Nye the Science Guy.

The technology promises a virtually inexhaustible source of space propulsion as a substitute for finite supplies of rocket fuels that the current generation of spacecraft rely on to maneuver in flight.

"We are thrilled to declare mission success for Lightsail 2," program manager Bruce Betts said Wednesday on a call convened with reporters to reveal that the spacecraft had raised its own orbit by 1 mile, sailing under the pressure of light beams from the sun.

Flight by light, or "sailing on sunbeams," as Bill 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.

Other applications include monitoring solar radiation that interferes with Earth-bound communication networks.

The solar sail technology could also reduce the need for expensive, cumbersome rocket propellants and slash the cost of navigating small satellites in space.

"We strongly feel that missions like Lightsail 2 will democratize space, enable more people, more organizations around the world to send spacecraft to exciting and remarkable destinations in the solar system that will lead us to answer that deep question: 'Where did we all come from?'" Nye said.

The Lightsail project kicked off in the 1990s, but its first planned prototype, Cosmos 1, was destroyed during a faulty launch on a Russian rocket taking off from a submarine in 2005.

The Planetary Society got its the next prototype, Lightsail 1, into space in 2015, but technical problems kept it from climbing high enough to be steered by sunlight.

Lightsail 2 became the latest spacecraft to demonstrate space-bound solar sailing after Japan's experimental IKAROS spacecraft in 2010.

The Lightsail project grew from an idea imagined by the society’s co-founders — executive director Louis Friedman and late astronomer and author Carl Sagan — to send a solar sail craft to rendezvous with Halley’s Comet in the 1970s.

© (c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2019.

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

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Japan did a light-sail experiment in space in 2010, the IKAROS.

In theory, light-sails can achieve 0.1c which makes them by far the fastest method of space travel possible today. That means we could send something to our closest neighbor star in about 50-60 years.

Very cool stuff.

Congrats to The Planetary Society. This will change how satellites maintain their orbits very soon.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

Where did we all come from?'" Nye said.

We know where, which is why Bill Nye lost his title as “the Science Guy.”

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Space pirates. ...?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

We know where

Care to enlighten we ignorant folk?

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Light sails are really cool Proof of concept Technology that has long been Sci-Fi

And in real-science we started seeing it being used in the 1970's with the Mariner mission:

The best Science Fiction may be the dreams of Real Scientists... but without Dreams we will never have goals to make reality.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Congratulations to them. But it is amazing that it took a small not for profit to do this, it is obvious, the theory has been known for a long time, the benefits are know and real, the advantages over thrusters in space are obvious and it is a simple, cheap experiment and yet NASA has ignored the technology. I wonder why? I suppose it just doesn’t squander enough public money to be sexy.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Yes, the Mariner missions to Mercury were the first jab at this type of exploration in early 1974.  We've had coronal studies since that time but in terms of solar exploration and 'sailing' this is a pioneering first.

Set the Controls For the Heart of the Sun!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

NASA has ignored the technology.

Nope. NASA has used it and has tested it multiple times since 2000.

While cancelled before actual space flight, the Sunjammer 13,000 sqft satellite was near to being launched. They did test the technology and learned much that would make any new efforts significantly better. Origami turns out to be extremely useful for sail folding and unfolding.

NEA Scout will be flown with EM-1 Orion capsule mission as a secondary payload to the asteroid belt.

NanoSail-D was launched in 2011. The sail failed initially, but explicitly opened 6+ weeks later. Need better origami experts?

For the goals of NASA satellites and current deep space missions, light sails are a niche solution.

NASA missions usually have much more mass, where the light sails would need to be huge to be used AND reaction propellant will still be required for orbit change maneuvers to other bodies.

Light sails are useless for any manned missions. Too much mass, where a solar sail would need to be the size of Texas.

As satellites become smaller, lighter, and real savings can be achieved by longer lifetimes of the satellites, light sails make much more sense, especially if solar power can fully power a satellite for 40+ yrs.

I'm not a light sail expert, but did work at NASA as a rocket scientist writing GN&C software for spacecraft.
1 ( +1 / -0 )

Amazing, solar powered space travel

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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