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Members of LightSail 2 Team Declare Their Mission a Success

"This is a very exciting day for us, and for me personally," said Bill Nye, chief executive officer of the Planetary Society

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LightSail 2, Team, Mission
This image was taken during the LightSail 2 sail deployment sequence, July 23, 2019. Baja California and Mexico are visible in the background. LightSail 2's dual 185-degree fisheye lenses can each capture more than half of the sail. VOA

Members of the LightSail 2 team declared their mission a success in a teleconference Wednesday. The citizen-funded spacecraft is the highest-performing solar sail to date and the first to demonstrate the ability to orbit Earth in a controlled way.

“This is a very exciting day for us, and for me personally,” said Bill Nye, chief executive officer  of the Planetary Society, the organization behind the mission. “This idea that you could fly a spacecraft with nothing but photons is surprising, and for me, it’s very romantic that you could be sailing on sunbeams.”

LightSail 2 is the latest demonstration of solar sail technology, which uses the gentle pressure of photons — the particles of light — on a lightweight, reflective surface to propel a craft through space, similar to the way the wind pushes a sailing ship across the ocean. However, instead of canvas, solar sails are made of thin sheets of Mylar, the same crinkly silver material often used for helium-filled balloons.

Faster speeds

LightSail 2, Team, Mission
Members of the LightSail 2 team declared their mission a success in a teleconference Wednesday. Pixabay

Although the pressure of the sun’s rays is no greater than the weight of a paperclip dropping on the sail, sunlight is a constant source of energy. Scientists expect that as long as sunlight reaches them, solar sails will keep accelerating to much higher speeds than what is provided by traditional propulsion methods using chemical or nuclear fuel.

By tracking the location of the spacecraft, the team found that it had traveled 1.7 kilometers (1.1 miles) farther from Earth in just four days thanks to the gentle influence of sunlight. This is the first time solar propulsion has been successfully demonstrated in Earth’s orbit.

The technology has been tested before. In 2010, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency launched a spacecraft called IKAROS, which used a solar sail to propel it past Venus and into orbit around the Sun.

The Planetary Society, which aims to advance space exploration, deployed its first solar sail in 2015. The LightSail 1 mission successfully unfurled a solar sail before re-entering Earth’s atmosphere a week later.

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LightSail 2 follows the same trajectory. The $7 million project was funded by Planetary Society members as well as individuals who contributed to a Kickstarter campaign in 2015.

The goal of this project is to demonstrate that solar sails can be used to propel small satellites called CubeSats. These tiny satellites weigh as little as 1 kilogram and can carry scientific instruments like cameras. Specifically, LightSail 2 is carrying a 5-kilogram (11-pound) CubeSat into a controlled orbit around Earth.

Small package

LightSail 2 was launched on June 25, 2019, carefully folded into a spacecraft the size of a loaf of bread. Last week, it successfully unfolded to its full 32-square-meter (344-square-foot) extent — about the size of a boxing ring.

LightSail 2, Team, Mission
The citizen-funded spacecraft is the highest-performing solar sail to date and the first to demonstrate the ability to orbit Earth in a controlled way. Pixabay

The spacecraft orbits Earth along an elliptical path. Propelled by sunlight, the spacecraft will rise to a higher orbit through Aug. 23, 2019. As the maximum distance between Earth and LightSail 2 increases, part of its orbit will inch closer to Earth. Eventually, the spacecraft will dip low enough into the atmosphere that it will begin to slow down, re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and burn up, concluding its mission.

The team members acknowledged the mission’s 50,000 financial backers, who hail from 109 countries. Jennifer Vaughn, chief operating officer of the Planetary Society, thanked the people who “have the dream and who are willing to put down their own financial support to make it happen.”

LightSail 2’s success is encouraging for the future of solar sailing. Nye said solar sails may enable us to travel to distant destinations in the solar system, including his personal goal to “ferry cargo to Mars, look for signs of life and change the course of human history.”

Nye added that LightSail 2 is part of the bigger idea that humanity seeks to explore the universe and understand our place in it.

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“Space exploration brings out the best in us,” he said. (VOA)

Next Story

India’s Ambitious Mission to Land Unmanned Probe on Moon Suffers Setback

Millions in the country stayed awake to watch live images of the "soft landing" that was to place a lander on the unexplored south pole

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India, Moon, Mission
FILE - This photo released by the Indian Space Research Organization shows its Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle MkIII, carrying Chandrayaan-2, lift off from Satish Dhawan Space center in Sriharikota, India, July 22, 2019. VOA

 India’s ambitious mission to land an unmanned probe on the moon suffered a setback when its space agency lost contact with the landing craft minutes before it was to make a critical touchdown on the lunar surface.

It was a disappointment for a country that had hoped to successfully demonstrate a feat achieved by only three other countries so far — the United States, the former Soviet Union and China.

Millions in the country stayed awake to watch live images of the “soft landing” that was to place a lander on the unexplored south pole of the moon around 2 a.m. local time Saturday. It was the most challenging component of India’s second moon mission, Chandrayaan-2.

All appeared to be on track, but the mood in the mission control room changed in the final moments when the lander was about 2 kilometers away from the lunar surface.

 

India, Moon, Mission
It was a disappointment for a country that had hoped to successfully demonstrate a feat achieved by only three other countries so far — the United States, the former Soviet Union and China. Pixabay

“The Vikram lander descent was (ongoing) as planned and normal performance was observed,” chairman of India’s Space Research, Organization, K. Sivan, said in a brief announcement. “Subsequently, communication from lander to the ground stations was lost. Data is being analyzed.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi who had been monitoring the landing with space scientists at the mission control room in Bengaluru, lauded their efforts. “Ups and downs keep coming in life. Your hard work has taught us a lot and the entire country is proud of you,” he added.

He later tweeted, “India is proud of our scientists! They’ve given their best and have always made India proud. These are moments to be courageous and courageous we will be.”

With contact lost, it is not clear if the vehicle landed safely on the lunar surface or not.

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’15 minutes of terror’

Landing on the lunar surface is a complex maneuver fraught with challenges and had earlier been described by ISRO head Sivan as “15 minutes of terror.” It involves reducing the velocity at which the lander comes down to ensure a touchdown so soft that it prevents damage, tilting or crashing. Only about half the 38 attempts to land on the moon have been successful.

India had hoped that mastering technology for soft landing would provide critical building blocks to mount further missions to Mars and other planets.

“Suppose you want to land something on Mars or do some docking activity, this knowledge is very critical,” Mukund Rao, an expert in space technology, said. “If you just orbit around say the Mars and moon, it does not give you the capability of  landing and colonizing and doing some exploitation.”

 

India, Moon, Mission
India’s ambitious mission to land an unmanned probe on the moon suffered a setback when its space agency lost contact with the landing craft. Pixabay

Indian scientists said the roughly $140 million mission was meant to study the south pole because a larger area there remains in shadow, increasing the possibility of water and making it a likely target for moon habitation.

There has been massive renewed interest in exploring the moon in recent years. China landed a craft earlier this year and the U.S. space agency has plans to put astronauts on the moon by 2024.

Chandrayaan-2 was a huge step up from India’s previous space explorations, such as its first moon mission in 2008 and a mission to Mars in 2013 that involved sending a spacecraft to the Red Planet.

There had been a massive groundswell of national pride in the mission. In the hours before the landing, television anchors had called it “historic” and “epochal,” and schoolchildren across the country cheered it enthusiastically. Some students had been invited to watch the soft landing attempt with the prime minister.

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India has a smaller space program compared to countries like the United States and and trails its Asian rival China, but it is mounting more ambitious programs hoping to get into the league of major space faring nations.

Prime Minister Modi is supportive of more space missions  analysts say the nationalist leader sees them as a symbol to underline the country’s rising stature. Planning is already underway for a manned mission to space by 2022, and robotic probes to Mars and Venus over the next decade. (VOA)