LightSail 2, a solar-sailing spacecraft, is scheduled for launch from the Kennedy Space Center, no earlier than June 13. It is set to be launched aboard the Falcon Heavy rocket, developed by SpaceX. Eventually, LightSail 2 is to orbit at an altitude of about 450 miles, which is twice that of the International Space Station. The goal for LightSail 2 is to have it test future missions wanting to rely on solar sails. These tests include the Near-Earth Asteroid Scout developed by NASA.
Solar sailing is a method of propulsion that relies on the sun’s photons to move a spacecraft or satellite. One of its biggest advantages is that it does not involve the use of fuel. This can save a company a lot of money while also reducing the weight of the craft itself. When it comes to cubesats and other small satellites, every ounce counts.
Testing the LightSail 2 involves launching it high enough into orbit that the presence of solar photons is greater than any atmospheric drag. This is one of the main reasons for the delay from completion to placement into orbit; developers were waiting for an upcoming launch that has a high enough altitude.
The LightSail 2 has numerous improvements over its earlier model, the LightSail 1. LightSail 1 was launched in May of 2015. Unfortunately, it lasted for less than 30 days while in low Earth orbit. The main purpose of this test launch was to ensure that the sail deployed properly, which it did. However, there were numerous other issues that forced developers to call it a failure. Software glitches began appearing less than two days after its launch, which delayed deployment of the sale for over a week.
Other issues that plagued LightSail 1 include a radio transmission errors and non-responsiveness. Eventually, less than a month after it was launched, it stopped transmission altogether. Engineers still considered the test flight helpful, as it gave them valuable direction when developing the newer model. Most of these improvements are focused around the way the craft uses nearby photons. In addition, the software, navigation, and cameras were also upgraded.
Solar sails have seen some success in recent years, making them a newly popular field of development. Japan’s Ikaros won a Guinness World Record as being the first solar sail to fly between planets, building off of the success of its 2010 test flight. NASA has also had some positive interactions with solar sales, most notably in a low-orbit mission in 2010. Despite this success, a second planned mission was later canceled. As a result, LightSail 2 is one of the only solar sails currently being tested. Developers and researchers hope to obtain information about how these pieces of technology work in space. Eventually, they hope to be able to transport a probe to a different star system using solar sail technology.