After a successful launch and deploy to Earth’s orbit on the back of the powerful United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket out of Cape Canaveral, the LightSail went silent for eight straight days. Spirits were high and nerves tense, but apparently the craft managed to solve the communication glitch all by itself. Like always, “have you tried switching it off and on?” Following the self-reboot, engineers immediately uploaded a new patch and hopefully we’ll see Lightsail unravel its photon harvesting wings soon enough. The LightSail, currently strapped to a CubeSat, might then be deployed through and out the solar system.
Planetary Society, a non-profit organization founded by Sagan himself and now coordinated by Bill Nye who had this to say about the recent event:
“Our LightSail called home! It’s alive! Our LightSail spacecraft has rebooted itself, just as our engineers predicted. Everyone is delighted. We were ready for three more weeks of anxiety. In this meantime, the team has coded a software patch ready to upload. After we are confident in the data packets regarding our orbit, we will make decisions about uploading the patch and deploying our sails— and we’ll make that decision very soon. This has been a rollercoaster for us down here on Earth, all the while our capable little spacecraft has been on orbit going about its business. In the coming two days, we will have more news, and I am hopeful now that it will be very good.”
The LightSail bears a simple design and looks very much like a kite. The sail is made out of thin Mylar and when stretched out measures 345 square feet. The idea is to use this sail to harness the pressure sunlight exerts, much in the same way wind pushes sails to propel a ship on water. While this pressure is minute, the catch is that it builds momentum over time. Eventually, it could reach speeds five times faster than the fastest rockets available today, all without any need for fuel. For more on the SolarSail, read my previous post for ZME.
The total project cost is $5.45 million, and so far the non-profit raised $4.2 million. Last month, a Kickstarter campaign was set up with the goal of reaching $200,000. So far, pledges have amounted to double that figure, which is quite encouraging not only for the Planetary Society, but other non-governmental space ventures which seek to gain financial backing directly from the public.
“This democratizes space. Once you’re up there, you can fly to the moon – or beyond,” said Nye.