Almost 10 years after its dreams of launching the world's first solar sail spacecraft crashed back to Earth, The Planetary Society is getting ready to try again. In May, the group's LightSail-1 spacecraft will ride aboard an Atlas V rocket and soar to an altitude of 450 miles and begin preparation to unfurl its 344 square feet of Mylar sails. While the spacecraft won't fly high enough to escape orbital drag and achieve true solar sail flight, a successful flight will pave the way for future, more advanced LightSails.
“There's an old saying in aerospace: 'One test is worth a thousand expert opinions,'" Planetary Society CEO and "Science Guy" Bill Nye said in a statement. "After six years of development, we're ready at last to see how LightSail flies."
Nye also praised LightSail's development and funding, with the $1.8 million estimated project cost coming from membership dues and private donors.
"LightSail is technically wonderful, but it's also wonderfully romantic. We'll sail on sunbeams," said Nye. "But wait, there’s more: this unique, remarkable spacecraft is funded entirely by private citizens, people who think spaceflight is cool."
LightSail will enter space as a three-unit Cubesat — about the size of a loaf of bread. After four weeks of system checks, four solar panels will open, allowing Lightsail's four triangular sails to extend and unfurl. Outside of Earth's gravitational pull, these sails would normally take advantage of solar radiation pressure to propel the craft forward. For this this first test, however, the sails will actually drag the spacecraft back into the atmosphere, giving engineers and scientists only days to gather data before the unit is lost.
Data from the May 2015 test will be used to prepare the launch of the LightSail-2 for a full-fledged solar sail flight in 2016.
Commented Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, who sits on the board of directors for the Planetary Society: "With the expected launch of LightSail — a craft propelled among the stars on the pressure of light itself — the expanse of space becomes a literal analogue to the open seas. If space is tomorrow's ocean, then Earth’s surface is its shoreline."
Check out a five-minute mission detail on LightSail-1, including a computer rendering of the upcoming flight, in the video above.
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