Sailing Spacecraft Uses Solar Radiation Wind to Change Orbit

The moment the LightSail 2's sail deployed. Pic: The Planetary Society

A spacecraft has changed its orbit using only the power of the sun for the first time, a space exploration non-profit has announced.

The success of the LightSail 2 Spacecraft, which is owned by the Planetary Society, opens up the possibility of a space propulsion system without the need for on board fuel.

The small spacecraft is the subject of a crowd-funded organisation who sought to test if such an object could be propelled solely by sunlight in Earth’s orbit.

On 24 July the craft’s solar sails were deployed. The non-profit said in a blog on its site: “Images captured during the deployment sequence and downloaded today show the 32-square-metre sail, which is about the size of a boxing ring, deploying as the spacecraft flew south of the continental United States.”

By Wednesday, the Planetary Society, whose CEO is famous children’s TV scientist Bill Nye, reported the spacecraft has raised its orbit around the Earth by about 2km (1.2 miles) using solar power alone.

“We’re thrilled to announce mission success for LightSail 2,” said LightSail program manager and Planetary Society chief scientist Bruce Betts.

“Our criteria was to demonstrate controlled solar sailing in a CubeSat by changing the spacecraft’s orbit using only the light pressure of the Sun, something that’s never been done before.

“I’m enormously proud of this team. It’s been a long road and we did it.”

The company claim this makes LightSail 2 the first spacecraft to use solar sailing for propulsion in Earth orbit.

It would also be the first small spacecraft to demonstrate solar sailing and be the first crowdfunded craft to demonstrate a new form of propulsion.


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