The LightSail Solar-Powered Space-Sailer Has Woken Up

By Chris Mills on at

For the last few weeks since its launch, an experimental satellite has been orbiting Earth, unable to make ground contact thanks to a software glitch. But earlier today, the spacecraft’s handlers successfully deployed the little craft’s gigantic sail.

Following the initial launch on May 20, the LightSail satelllite went offline due to a software glitch. It spent eight days in silence, before dropping in and out of contact last week, with firm contact only re-established on Saturday. But with the batteries still charged, mission control was able to go forward with one of the main achievements for the experimental flight: deploying the tiny satellite’s huge solar sail.

LightSail is an experimental project, funded by The Planetary Society, a US non-government organisation founded by Carl Sagan in 1980, which is currently headed up by famous American science presenter, Bill Nye. LightSail is a project aimed at testing the technical and economic benefits of solar sails, which use sunlight to propel themselves through the vacuum of space.

The LightSail craft that’s currently in orbit is too low to allow for actual sailing, since the satellite will be caught in atmospheric drag. Instead, it’s meant to test things like deployment and communications, in preparation for a full mission next year.

Solar sail technology isn’t particularly new, having already been tested by the Americans and Japanese. What LightSail is promising, though, is low-budget space exploration. The LightSail craft is made up of CubeSats, tiny satellites weighing just over a kilo each. LightSail has three of those, and a huge Mylar sail covering 344 square feet. That makes it cheap, costing $4.5m (£2.9m) million for the whole mission.

[The Planetary Society]

Top image: Artist’s concept of the LightSail microsatellite. Credit: The Planetary Society/Mika McKinnon