‘Mission success’: Solar sail shifts its orbit

LightSail 2 solar sail
This image was taken during the LightSail 2 sail deployment sequence on July 23. The sail is almost fully deployed here and appears warped near the edges due to the spacecraft’s 185-degree fisheye camera lens. The image has been color corrected and some of the distortion has been removed. The sun is visible at center. (Planetary Society Photo / CC BY-NC 3.0)

It may be “mission accomplished” for the Planetary Society’s solar sail experiment, but its privately funded LightSail 2 mission is far from over.

Five weeks after LightSail 2’s launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, the nonprofit membership society celebrated the spacecraft’s ability to raise the highest point of its orbit by a little more than a mile (1.7 kilometers), using the force of sunlight pressing against its 18.4-foot-wide, 4.5-micron-thick reflective Mylar sails.

Demonstrating solar sail steerability was the point of the decade-long campaign to build and fly LightSail 2 and its predecessor, LightSail 1. The project’s estimated $7 million cost was covered by contributions from Planetary Society members and other donors.

“On behalf of the tens of thousands of people around the world who came together to help the dream of solar sailing move forward, we’re thrilled to declare mission success for LightSail 2,” Planetary Society chief scientist Bruce Betts, who serves as program manager for LightSail, told journalists today during a teleconference.

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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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