LightSail Loses Contact Thanks To Software Glitch

Josh Spradling / The Planetary Society

Just two days after Bill Nye’s LightSail set off on its epic journey, it came to a disappointing halt. According to the latest mission update, the tiny spacecraft has been ‘silenced’ by a software glitch.

As we reported earlier this month, LightSail was launched by The Planetary Society to propel a tiny CubeSat using the sun’s energy. A prototype of the spacecraft was launched to test the sail deployment sequence, paving way for the primary mission scheduled for 2016. The LightSail was operating normally as of last Friday, but a problem was “brewing” inside the spacecraft’s software. Jason Davis, from The Planetary Society, explains in a blogpost: "LightSail is likely now frozen, not unlike the way a desktop computer suddenly stops responding."

LightSail was designed to transmit a “telemetry beacon packet” to Earth, and save a copy of the information to a file called beacon.csv. The main system board kept doing this until the file reached 32 megabytes, which ended up crashing the system. The LightSail went silent and was no longer transmitting data home.  

While this glitch in the software was later corrected by the manufacturers, LightSail’s software does not include this important update. Operators have tried rebooting, but the spacecraft has failed to respond. Researchers need to manually reboot the system, but as Planetary Society CEO Bill Nye already points out, “There’s nobody in outer space to push that reset button.”

The mission has now been put on hold until researchers find a way to restart the system. Davis suggests that the spacecraft could reboot if a charged particle in deep space hits its electrical component in the “right” way.

“This is not an uncommon occurrence for CubeSats, or even larger spacecraft, for that matter. Cal Poly’s experience with CubeSats suggest most experience a reboot in the first three weeks; I spoke with another CubeSat team that rebooted after six,” Davis adds.  

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