LightSail has deployed its solar sail for the first time, weeks after launching into space on the first test flight for the spacecraft design. This technology could, one day, allow spacecraft to travel without using or carrying fuel.
Solar sails harness the energy of light from the sun by using it as a means of propulsion, similar to way a sailboat utilizes wind. Unlike a solar panel, which converts solar enegery into electricity, LightSail literally uses sunlight to push it the way a breeze pushes a sail. Mission planners were able to unfurl the giant sail for the first time on June 7.
The Planetary Society, a private space advocacy group, designed and manages the LightSail program.
After launching from Earth on May 20, the vehicle quickly dropped out of communication with controllers on Earth, due to an issue with software.
Motor is running! Sail is Deploying!!! 39 Years after Prof. Sagan spoke of it!
— Bill Nye (@BillNye) June 7, 2015
This is the first test of solar sails for The Planetary Society, although space agencies from Japan and NASA have tested similar systems. This flight is designed to test the technology which will be employed on a second flight for the private space organization, planned for 2016. This first flight is orbiting too low for the craft to ride on light beams, but it will allow mission engineers to test communication systems and deployment of the Mylar sail, which stretches out over 344 square feet.
Mission planners are encouraging radio operators around the globe to track LightSail, and the vehicle should also be visible from the ground for skygazers. The Planetary Society has established a Mission Control Center, allowing watchers to predict where and when they may be able to see the craft fly over their location. Dawn and dusk are generally the best times to catch a glimpse of LightSail, because it is relatively dark in the observer's local area, but the spacecraft is still reflecting some light from the rising or setting sun.
LightSail was unable to return its first images to Earth until it passed over receiving stations early on the afternoon of June 8. When controllers on the ground saw the first pictures, the images did not show any detail.
"Team working this morning with camera manufacturer to understand situation. Could try more images or reshoot this afternoon," Jason Davis of The Planetary Society wrote on Twitter.
Carl Sagan, a co-founder of The Planetary Society, popularized the idea of a solar sail in the 1980s, and designs have been under consideration for nearly four decades.
The LightSail appears to be functioning normally, and batteries are charging normally. As the flight continues, controllers will try to take new photographs and download them to Earth.