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Jason DavisSeptember 4, 2015

A Kilometer Per Day: LightSail Mission Managers Refine Orbit-Raising Plan

LightSail will spiral away from Earth by about one kilometer per day, according to the latest orbital estimates by Georgia Tech's Space Systems Design Laboratory. Mission managers are refining the software algorithms used to swing the spacecraft's 32-square-meter sails in and out sunlight each orbit. Over time, LightSail's 720-kilometer, circular path around the Earth will become egg-shaped as the spacecraft's apoapsis—the highest point of its orbit—gradually increases. 

In order to validate solar sailing as a viable method of propulsion for CubeSats, LightSail must show sunlight has produced an intentional, measurable effect on the spacecraft's orbit. Until recently, the plan was to alter LightSail's 24-degree inclination. Inclination is a spacecraft's orbital angle with respect to the equator. It also corresponds to the north and south latitudes the spacecraft will reach. 

At 720 kilometers above Earth, atmospheric drag will still affect LightSail's orbit, though the force of solar sailing is expected to outweigh drag by a factor of four or five to one. Drag increases whenever the sun ejects large bursts of charged particles, which expands Earth's atmosphere. (These particles are different from the packets of photons responsible for solar sailing.) 

Georgia Tech aerospace engineering graduate student Sean Chait ran simulations to see how much LightSail's inclination could change due to sunlight pressure. The results showed a difference of just a few thousandths of a degree after several weeks of flight. Such a small change would be difficult to measure from the ground, and even more difficult to attribute to solar sailing. 

As an alternative approach, Chait evaluated the effect of orienting the solar sail to increase the spacecraft's orbital energy. His analysis showed that by making two 90-degree turns each orbit—tacking in an out of the sun's photon stream like a sailboat—LightSail's apoapsis should increase by about a kilometer per day. That means by the end of two months, LightSail's maximum altutide should reach 780 kilometers—almost twice as high as the International Space Station.

LightSail will make these back-and-forth turns using its momentum wheel and electromagnetic torque rods. When the spacecraft is moving toward the sun, its sail will be turned edge-on to slice through the solar photon stream. As the spacecraft moves away from the sun, it will turn perpendicular to the photons, allowing the photons to transfer their momentum to the spacecraft and push it along.

"The reason we are doing this while we are moving away from the sun is to increase LightSail's orbital velocity," says Chait. "This increase in velocity is what causes apoapsis to walk out."

In general, a spacecraft raises its apoapsis, or high point, by thrusting at the periapsis, or low point. Starting from LightSail's initial 720-kilometer circular orbit, this sail control strategy will increase the altitude on the side of the Earth opposite LightSail's solar thrusting.

LightSail orbit raising strategy

Jason Davis / The Planetary Society

LightSail orbit raising strategy
By tacking back and forth into the sun's rays like a sailboat, LightSail gradually raises the apoapsis, or high point, of its orbit. The orbit becomes increasingly egg-shaped on the side of the Earth opposite LightSail's solar thrusting.

Chait says that while LightSail's apoapsis altitude will increase, atmospheric drag will cause the periapsis, or lowest point, to slowly decrease. "This drag is what will eventually de-orbit LightSail," Chait says. "But this strategy proves that we are changing LightSail's orbital parameters using solar radiation pressure, due to the fact that atmospheric drag will only decrease the spacecraft's altitude."

Thanks to a highly successful KickStarter campaign, LightSail is funded for four months of orbital operations. It launches in September 2016 with its partner spacecraft, Prox-1, aboard the first operational flight of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy.

Read more: LightSail

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Jason Davis

Journalist and Digital Editor for The Planetary Society
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