Solar-Powered Spacecraft LightSail Finally Wakes Up

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The Planetary Society’s solar-powered spacecraft LightSail has been successfully revived. LightSail faced a lot of malfunctions including a troubled battery and a software glitch since its launch on May 20th. The experimental spacecraft hitched a ride into orbit aboard an Atlas-5 rocket that also carried the U.S. Air Force’s secretive X-37B unmanned shuttle on May 20.

LightSail starts deploying its Mylar sails

The Planetary Society, a non-profit group led by “the Science Guy” Bill Nye, is testing the possibility of using sunlight for propulsion. Photons of sunlight have a force and speed to them. The bombardment of these photons on a very thin film sail can generate forward motion. The privately-funded project is estimated to cost $5.3 million.

On Sunday after 2:00 PM Eastern Time, engineers working on the project sent a command to deploy the sail. But LightSail unexpectedly ignored the command. Engineers sent the command again about two hours later, and then the electric motor started turning. It started deploying the four 13-foot long triangular sails that are just 4.5 microns thick. Upon full deployment, it would cover an area of about 345 square feet.

LightSail expected to send a confirmation on Monday

By the time LightSail passed out of radio range, its motor had turned more than 67,000 times. It takes 134,000 turns to fully deploy the sail. Bill Nye said, “There was no reason to believe it wouldn’t keep going.” Ground control teams expect to get a confirmation on Monday that it has fully deployed its sail.

LightSail is about the size of a loaf of bread. Just two days after it was deployed last month, the spacecraft’s computer crashed due to a software flaw. It was silent for over a week until, much to everyone’s delight, a high-speed deep-space cosmic ray collided with the system and caused the computer to restart. But soon it suffered a battery problem, falling silent for the second time.

Now that it has been revived, researchers expect to quickly complete the mission, within 2-10 days. It was a test flight to demonstrate that LightSail’s Mylar sails can be fully deployed. The Planetary Society plans to launch a second LightSail to a higher orbit next year.

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