Previously in 1976, the late Carl Sagan sat down on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson to speak a few new forms of space propulsion referred to as solar sailing. Four decades later, and The Planetary Society has formally demonstrated this “tremendously thrilling prospect” in practice.
Drawing on ten years of hard work and 7 million dollars in crowdfunding, the nonprofit Society’s LightSail 2 has to turn out to be the first small spacecraft to raise its orbit solely on the power of sunlight.
“We’re thrilled to announce mission success for LightSail 2,” says Bruce Betts, LightSail program supervisor, and the Society’s chief scientist.
“Our standards were to reveal controlled solar sailing in a CubeSat by altering the spacecraft’s orbit using only the light pressure of the Solar, something that is never been carried out before.”
The LightSail 2 spacecraft has been up in orbit for over a month, and last week, it opened its sails for the first time. In the eight days or so since, the spacecraft has raised its orbit by 1.7 kilometers, pushed along solely by the Sun’s photons, which ‘bounce off’ its reflective sails.
Following Japan’s IKAROS solar sail, which was launched in 2010, LightSail 2 is simply the second-ever successful attempt at solar flying. But unlike IKAROS, it will probably use this new form of propulsion to really change its orbit.
Based on mission manager Dave Spencer, LightSail 2 is being controlled autonomously by an onboard algorithm.