LightSail finally propels in space Sunday, June 7, 2015 at 3:47 p.m. EDT after encountering previous major technical glitches. Bill Nye, the "Science Guy" and Chief Executive Officer of The Planetary Society, which heads the mission, joyfully announces on Twitter the deployment of the solar sail. The news on whether the set-off is a success will be established by Monday when re-contact with the spacecraft ensues. In the meantime, the organization encourages amateur space enthusiasts and astronomers to track and possibly communicate with the shining LightSail.
The Planetary Society was co-founded by popular astronomer Carl Sagan, who later developed the LightSail through private funding. Sagan envisioned a spaceship that can be propelled through great space distances using tiny photons, which compose the beams of light. Making use of light, such as that of the sun, will enable the spaceships to travel the vast space without using traditional chemical rockets.
The first attempt to launch the LightSail was on May 20, 2015. However, the sail failed to deliver even before deployment. The engineers working on the project looked into the different possibilities behind the shutting off of the spacecraft. They came up with rationales such as software glitch and battery-charging problems.
On Sunday, the LightSail was deployed off the coast of Baja California, Mexico, traveling from northwest to southeast. Data from the ground telemetry show that the spacecraft is halfway through the out-of-range-point. The cameras of the ship are turned on and the power supply looks stable according to the ground testings.
"All indications are that the solar sail deployment was proceeding nominally," writes mission manager David Spencer in an email. The team is now awaiting for the photos via satellite to confirm that the deployment is successful.
At present, The Planetary Society urges the public to take part in the mission by monitoring the LightSail through different means. The organization emphasizes that timing is the key tool in successfully detecting the spacecraft.
"Look for flyovers that occur around dawn and dusk. The best time to see any spacecraft-including LightSail-is when you are standing in Earth's shadow but the spacecraft is still illuminated by sunlight," explains the instructions on their website. The team also advises that the LightSail shall be visible in start and end horizons.
The Planetary Society has a website where the public can gather some tips on how to efficiently monitor the LightSail. Individuals can create an account and enter their current location in the website and the Mission Control Center predicts the time the LightSail will fly over their areas. The tool that pertains to the max elevation identifies the highest altitude it will reach in the sky; 90 degrees means it is directly on top of the location and zero degrees refers to the clear and obstruction-free horizon. Looking outside minutes before the posted estimated times may be a good idea as the LightSail looks ahead of the schedule, according to the website. Those who can't get up in the morning or simply do not want to track down the LightSail, they can still help by donating funds with a Kickstarter.
Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center | Flickr