An artist rendition of the LightSail 2 above Earth (Image credit: Josh Spradling / The Planetary Society)
Back in 2015, LightSail, the Planetary Society’s Carl Sagan inspired solar sailer, took flight. The kite-like aircraft was proposed as a way to guide satellites around space using energy from the sun instead of chemical fuel. The mission was a success proving the photon-powered craft was possible. Now, SpaceX is gearing up for round two. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket will carry the LightSail 2 when it launches this summer.
After fixing some bugs and making some tweaks, the Planetary Society is ready to launch LightSail 2. Though the new model is fairly similar to the previous one, there are some important hardware changes between the two. One big change is the addition of a momentum wheel. During its orbit, LightSail 2 has to make two 90-degree turns, turning the thrust away from sunlight on and off while the spacecraft moves away and towards the sun. It will use the new momentum wheel to achieve those turns. The LightSail 2 is also equipped with a small group of mirrors on the bottom to let ground-based lasers measure the spacecraft’s orbit using laser ranging or zapping a spacecraft with a laser and seeing how long it takes for the signal to bounce back.
With the launch of LightSail 2, the team hopes to take things a bit further. This time, the craft will fly in an orbit around Earth and test out its maneuverability. They’ll gather data about how the solar sails perform in space. With the information they gather, they hope to use the LightSail to power CubeSat satellites through space. These are tiny satellites that can be used for science experiments and Earth observation. The mission has already proven useful, informing future solar projects like NASA’s NEA Scout mission, which plans to use a solar sail to visit a near-Earth asteroid.
After it’s launch, LightSail 2's 4 dual-sided solar panels should swing open. Approximately a day later, 4 metallic booms will unfurl 4 triangular Mylar sails from storage. The sails, which have a combined area of 32 square meters, will turn towards the sun for half of each orbit. Which gives the spacecraft a small push. For about a month after sail deployment, this continual thrust should raise LightSail 2's orbit by a measurable amount.
"This is history in the making -- LightSail 2 will fundamentally advance the technology of spaceflight," Bill Nye, who is CEO of the Planetary Society, said in a statement.
The Falcon Heavy rocket is set to launch from the Kennedy Space Center on June 24th at 11:30pm ET. If all goes well, in addition to carrying LightSail 2, this will be Falcon Heavy's first night launch.
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