The Planetary Society announced Monday that it would send its first small craft, LightSail, into the orbit in May. The test solar sail mission will blast off atop the Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to test out key technologies and systems before launching a more advanced trial probe in 2016. The Planetary Society, led by The Science Guy Bill Nye, is a nonprofit organization that promotes space exploration.
LightSail consists of three CubeSats
The organization has been working on LightSail for almost six years. The project is entirely funded by private citizens and is estimated to cost less than $4 million. It will sail on sunbeams. Photons in the sunlight have a speed and force to them. The sail is bombarded by photons from the sunlight that help it move forward slowly and steadily.
Over time, this gentle push could accelerate a spacecraft to very high speeds because space is a vacuum. LightSail consists of three CubeSats or small satellites. All CubeSats are linked together to form a craft about the size of a loaf of bread: 4 inches by 4 inches by 1 foot. Upon launch, the spacecraft will undergo four weeks of the testing phase. Then it will extend four 13-foot long triangular sails that are just 4.5 microns thick to form a square sail that would cover an area of 344 square feet (watch the video below).
It’s just a preliminary test of LightSail
However, the test launch in May 2015 will just be a preliminary one. LightSail will go into space, but won’t go high enough to escape the pull of our planet’s atmosphere. Atmospheric drag is expected to pull it down within 2-10 days of sail deployment. The objective of this project is to see whether the craft unfurls the sails and deploys successfully.
Based on the learning from test flight in May, The Planetary Society will launch anther LightSail next year that will go into orbit to test its solar sailing capabilities. Bill Nye told Kenneth Chang of The New York Times that LightSail could be a big part of the future of interplanetary missions.