Planetary Society Declares Success with LightSail 2

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Bill Nye and Co. Declare Mission Success for Solar Sail

Planetary Society CEO Bill Nye declared the organization’s passion project a success yesterday. He was referring to LIghtSail 2, the small CubeSat the company launched into orbit about a month ago. A few days ago, that tiny CubeSat unfolded into a 32-square-meter solar sail and began catching photons. Then it changed its own orbit. That, according to Nye and others at the Planetary Society, is proof that the craft can use photons to propel itself through space. No rocket fuel required. The implications are potentially huge.

Read More: Solar Sail Technology Deploys from LIghtSail 2

Mythbusters blowing their own sail

I’m pretty sure this is how it works… Right?

The Point of the Mission

The LightSail 2 craft launched about a month ago on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. The irony there reveals itself when you realize that this ultra-light (5kg) spacecraft the size of a loaf of bread went into orbit aboard the most powerful rocket SpaceX currently has. That Falcon Heavy is capable of carrying 12,791 LightSail 2 craft into space.  

Once in orbit, the CubeSat deployed it 32-square-meter sail made from Mylar. The sail unfolded and began catching billions of photons from the sun and other light sources. Each of these photons, though they technically have no mass, carries a tiny bit of energy with it into the sail. When billions of them add up, it creates an exponential acceleration cycle that will, in theory, carry spacecraft using this technology deep into space. By the way – that pic above is not how LightSail 2 works. For a better explanation, here’s a video:

The Planetary Society Measure of Success 

Nye announced mission success when researchers confirmed that over the past few days, the craft had raised its orbital apogee by 1.7 kilometers. Essentially, that means that LightSail 2 changed its own course and pulled itself further away from the earth without rocket fuel. The big picture here is that once a lunar base is established, thousands of spacecraft like LightSail 2 could be launched with minimal cost. At that point, deep space exploration could expand exponentially.

Currently, LightSail 2 is orbiting at an altitude where it still has to overcome atmospheric resistance. So eventually it will fall back to earth, and the mylar’s reflective nature means there’s a good chance you can see it as it comes back down in a month or so. Similar spacecraft launched from a lunar base would not have to worry about resistance from Earth’s upper atmosphere.

The success of the Planetary Society today bodes well for the future of space exploration. The entire project cost just $7 million. By comparison, it costs somewhere between $85 million and $125 million per launch of a Falcon Heavy. Well done, Planetary Society. Well done. Cheers all around.


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Brandon Humphreys

Brandon Humphreys

I'm a wizard. I write stuff and it goes from my head into yours - Magic! Apart from that, I am the Senior Editor for Space Porn, a veteran, a rock guitarist, and a teacher.

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2 Responses

  1. Avatar Lukas Tombers says:

    Im pretty sure the author meant photons, propelling the spacecraft. Not protons.

    • Sorry for the mixup and on all of that. Simple proofreading oversight on my part. I have to crank this content out pretty quickly, and sometimes I can’t catch everything. Thanks for pointing it out and for clarifying. Post has been updated. 🙂

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