/Spacecraft Powered by Light Sails Set to Launch Aboard SpaceX Falcon Heavy Rocket

Spacecraft Powered by Light Sails Set to Launch Aboard SpaceX Falcon Heavy Rocket

A spacecraft featuring a novel method of propulsion is set to attempt the first controlled flight in Earth’s orbit to be powered by solar sails.

The LightSail 2—which was developed by the Planetary Society, with support from public donations—is scheduled to launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy Rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida on June 22.

Weighing just 11 pounds, LightSail 2 consists of a small main body, known as a CubeSat—standardized, affordable spacecraft about the size of a loaf of bread—and a deployable solar sail that measures around 350 square feet in area.

This sail is designed to propel the spacecraft by harnessing the gentle push of photons—particles of light—from the sun, in a manner akin to how conventional sails use the power of the wind to propel boats.

The manufacturer’s hope that the flight will demonstrate the potential for using sunlight in this way to power spacecraft, an idea that has long fascinated scientists. The launch will mark the culmination of a project that began in earnest a decade ago, although its origins lie with the three scientists who founded The Planetary Society—the world’s largest non-profit space organization—in 1980.

“Forty years ago, my professor Carl Sagan shared his dream of using solar sail spacecraft to explore the cosmos. The Planetary Society is realizing the dream,” Planetary Society CEO and renowned science communicator Bill Nye.said in a statement.

“Thousands of people from all over the world came together and supported this mission. We couldn’t have done it without them,” he said. “Carl Sagan, and his colleagues Bruce Murray and Louis Friedman, created our organization to empower people everywhere to advance space science and exploration. We are go for launch!”

Once in orbit, LightSail 2 will attempt to increase its altitude using sunlight, something no spacecraft has done before. Even though visible light radiation has no mass, it does have momentum, and the sail harnesses this to power the spacecraft.

The launch will include 24 other spacecraft destined for three different orbits under the Department of Defense’s Space Test Program-2. LightSail 2 will be transported within another spacecraft, known as Prox-1, to be deployed 7 days after launch at an altitude of around 450 miles.

Shortly after, LightSail 2 will unfurl its sail made of Mylar—a thin polyester film—and turn toward the sun for half of each orbit. The continuous pressure of the sunlight against the sail, while incredibly weak, should raise its orbit by a measurable amount.

LightSail 2 is the successor to LightSail 1, which The Planetary Society launched in 2015 to test the sail deployment system of the spacecraft.

LightSail 2

Artist’s concept of LightSail 2 above Earth.
Josh Spradling / The Planetary Society

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