Solar sails sound like something that’s strictly science fiction but they’ve had a surprising amount of real world success over the past 5 years. Back in 2010 Japan launched their IKAROS craft, an ambitious project that had its sights set on a fully solar sail powered mission to Venus which it successfully completed in December of the same year. Nanosail-D2 (D1 was lost when the Falcon rocket carrying it failed to reach orbit) followed shortly afterwards and, whilst it had some issues deploying from its parent satellite, eventually managed to deploy and stay in orbit for some time. The most recent mission, headed up by the Planetary Society who took over the Nanosail project from NASA, called LightSail-A announced that they had successfully deployed their sail which bodes well for their future missions.
Whilst this isn’t exactly new territory for solar sails as a technology it is a rather important validation of the technological platform that the Planetary Society wants to use going forward. LightSail-A was built on a three unit cubesat platform with one unit dedicated to the core electronics platform and the other two holding the solar sail. It’s essentially another version of the Nanosail-D type craft that NASA launched when they were in charge of the program although I’m sure there’s some fundamental differences under the hood. What’s really interesting about LightSail-A though is that it’s entirely funded by the Planetary Society through their member dues and a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign, raising the requisite $1.8 million to get their craft into orbit.
It hasn’t been smooth sailing for this little craft however, something which seems to be par for the course with solar sail projects. Two days after launch LightSail-A fell out of contact with earth, rendering it unable to deploy its sail. All hopes were then pinned on LightSail-A rebooting itself which it did just over a week later. Just a few days after that however an issue with the battery system, which had failed to charge after the solar panels had deployed, knocked the craft out of communication again. 4 days ago however contact was reestablished and, just one short day afterwards LightSail-A confirmed that it had deployed its sails. Today the Planetary Society released the first image captured from LightSail-A (shown above), confirming that the sails had been deployed.
The amount of time that the craft has left up in orbit is anyone’s guess as the original mission duration was planned for two to ten days after the sail had been deployed. The altitude of LightSail-A’s orbit means that it can’t be used to test the propulsion capabilities as the atmospheric drag is far greater than any thrust that the sail can generate. The next week or so will give the Planetary Society enough time to shake down the rest of the systems, hopefully working out any further kinks before they attempt their next mission, currently planned for sometime next year.
It might not be the most revolutionary nor sexy of space missions however the fact that this happened on the back of support from the public is what makes LightSail-A’s accomplishments significant. Solar sails have the potential to revolutionize the way our spacecraft access deep space, enabling faster and more efficient missions to other celestial bodies within our solar system. We may be a decade or so away from seeing it being adapted in earnest but without missions like LightSail-A we’d be waiting for much, much longer.