Finally, some good news for the LightSail mission! Contact has been made with the solar spacecraft and it has unfurled its 32 square meter (344 square foot) sail.
Funded by a Kickstarter campaign as a “citizen-funded project” from Bill Nye the Science Guy and The Planetary Society in Pasadena, California, the mission to launch this small solar spacecraft has been troublesome.
Shortly after launch, the spacecraft’s onboard computer crashed due to a software glitch. For manned space missions this would usually be a quick fix as onboard astronauts could come to the rescue and hit a few buttons. But LightSail doesn't have an onboard crew, and as The Planetary Society CEO Bill Nye points out, “There’s nobody in outer space to push that reset button.”
Solar sails work by reflecting light particles, or photons, from the Sun, creating a force of thrust in the opposite direction. Though the thrust from each reflected photon is small, a large sail capable of reflecting many could potentially be propelled continuously, without the need for fuel.
With contact reestablished last weekend, the Planetary Society messaged the solar spacecraft to deploy its sail to enable it to glide. Thankfully, after so many complications, the sail unfurled without a hitch.
At its current altitude, LightSail won’t be able to gain enough thrust from solar power to exceed the drag of atmosphere and so will descend back to Earth in the next few days, but this mission was only designed to be proof of concept
As problematic as this LightSail mission has been, all issues have allowed engineers to learn more about the possibilities of using such crafts, and this is only a prototype. A second version of LightSail could be launched into a higher orbit by next year.
[H/T New Scientist]