On July 2, 2019, the Planetary Society non-profit organization launched LightSail 2. The team sought to prove that light particles — called photons — could power flight in space. The mission has far exceeded that goal now, 30-months after launch.
LightSail 2 has been beaming data back to Earth reliably. Planetary Society president Bill Nye (yes, the former star of the TV program “Bill Nye the Science Guy”) said that a nearly constant stream of Earth photographs provided by LightSail 2 have been “stunning.”
If you’re a classic rock music fan, you’ve heard of “Walking on Sunshine.” Well, LightSail 2 is sailing on sunlight.
The idea to sail in space first emerged in 1607 with comet observer Johannes Kepler. Kepler imagined ships sailing on starlight like ships on Earth sail before the wind.
The technology that allows for light-powered flight in space is an enormous, 32-square-meter Mylar sail. The sail has succeeded in sustaining orbit for LightSail 2 far longer than initial predictions.
Crowdfunding for the LightSail 2 project reached $7 million and included support from California Polythech, Purdue, Georhia Tech, and Hawai’i Community College. And the project has more than reached stated goals.
This pilot project has only “scratched the surface” of solar sailing capabilities according to project manager Bruce Betts.
President Nye is also amazed at the project’s success. “I thought — the engineers thought — the ship would sail for a while but be brought down by aerodynamic drag in less than a year,” said Nye.
Now that proof-of-concept has been achieved, NASA has planned three solar sail missions. The first will liftoff in March of this year (2022). The upcoming missions will rely on sail technology derived from LightSail 2’s design.
Eventually, light sail technology could be used to “steer” spaceships in flight to modify their trajectory in orbit. They could also be used to provide warning about solar flares.
If this all sounds like the stuff of 1970s science fiction, it is! Read more about this amazing achievement and others like it at Interesting Engineering.
Image source: The Planetary Society via Interesting Engineering