LightSail 2 opens up in orbit to fly on sunshine

This fisheye image was taken during the LightSail 2 sail deployment sequence on July 23. Baja California and Mexico are visible in the background. The image has been de-distorted and color-corrected. (Planetary Society Photo / CC BY-NC 3.0)

The nonprofit Planetary Society says its LightSail 2 experiment spread out its solar sails today, nearly a month after it took a piggyback ride to orbit aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.

Following through on 2015’s LightSail 1 mission, this latest flight is designed to demonstrate not only that the 18.4-foot-wide, 4.5-micron thick reflective Mylar sails can be successfully deployed from a shoebox-sized spacecraft, but also that they can be used to maneuver in orbit.

LightSail 2 is pushed by the pressure of sunlight, much as a seagoing sailboat is pushed by the pressure of the wind. Theoretically, bigger and more capable sails could be used to drive a spacecraft around the solar system, or even outward to other stars.

The $7 million project is largely funded by Planetary Society members and private donors. LightSail 2 was packed aboard the Falcon Heavy as part of a larger payload called Prox-1 and delivered to orbit on June 25. Since then, the spacecraft has been going through checkouts and snapping pictures of the planet below.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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