Cape Canaveral, FL (May 20, 2015) – The Planetary Society’s citizen-funded LightSail™ spacecraft has launched into orbit aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The spacecraft is part of a secondary payload dubbed ULTRASat aboard the U.S. Air Force mission AFSPC-5. The mission will test LightSail’s critical functions in low-Earth orbit, a precursor to a second mission set for 2016.
Bill Nye (The Science Guy®), CEO at The Planetary Society, witnessed the launch on site among Planetary Society staff and members. Nye stated:
“Today is an extraordinary day for The Planetary Society, our members, and space enthusiasts around the world: LightSail successfully launched into orbit. Our co-founders dreamt of this day. We've been working to get a solar sail into space since I joined The Planetary Society Board in 1997.
“While we celebrate this step, LightSail’s biggest tests are still ahead. Over the next days, we will be monitoring our CubeSat as we prepare for the big show: the day LightSail deploys its super shiny Mylar sails for flight on sunlight. Stay tuned; the best is about to happen.
“As we await that stage, we just get more excited. After all, we've been working on this for 39 years. LightSail would not be possible without our members, fans and citizens worldwide. We are all in this together. Let's see if we can give space exploration a strong nudge and change the world a little bit.”
Solar sailing works by using sunlight for propulsion. When solar photons strike LightSail's reflective Mylar® sails, their momentum is transferred to the spacecraft, gradually accelerating it through space. While the push from photons is miniscule, it is continuous and unlimited. Solar sails can eventually reach greater speeds than those obtained from chemical rockets.
LightSail is packaged into a small spacecraft called a CubeSat. CubeSats have made low-cost space missions a reality for universities and research groups. However, providing propulsion for these tiny satellites has been a challenge. LightSail will demonstrate the viability of solar sailing for CubeSats. During the May 2015 LightSail test launch, the LightSail team will address any technical issues and apply takeaways to the 2016 mission.
The 2015 test flight will not carry the spacecraft high enough to escape Earth's atmospheric drag, and will thus not demonstrate controlled solar sailing. Once in orbit, the spacecraft will go through a checkout and testing period of about four weeks before deploying its solar sails. After the sails unfurl, LightSail will study the behavior of the sails for a few days before it is pulled back into Earth’s atmosphere. Key images and data on the spacecraft's performance will be sent to ground stations at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Georgia Tech.
The spacecraft was designed by Stellar Exploration, Inc., in San Luis Obispo, Calif. LightSail's lead contractor for integration and testing is Pasadena, Calif.-based Ecliptic Enterprises Corporation, a space avionics and sensor systems firm best known for its popular RocketCam™ family of video systems used on rockets and spacecraft. The LightSail project is managed by Doug Stetson, founder and principal partner of the Space Science and Exploration Consulting Group.
The Planetary Society’s second LightSail spacecraft is scheduled to fly in 2016. This mission will build on the results of the test flight to conduct a full demonstration of solar sailing in Earth orbit. LightSail will be packaged inside a spacecraft called Prox-1 built by students at Georgia Tech. The spacecraft duo will be launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket to an orbit of about 720 kilometers (450 miles).
Citizens around the world can be part of the 2016 LightSail mission. The “Selfies to Space” feature invites people to submit photographs for inclusion aboard the spacecraft at planetary.org/selfie.
Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, a member of The Planetary Society board of directors, joined Nye to launch a LightSail Kickstarter campiagn (planetary.org/kickstarter) in a video announcement, which led to immediate worldwide response. Funded entirely by private citizens, LightSail is the yield of collective support.
The Planetary Society's solar sailing involvement was started by Society co-founder Louis Friedman more than a decade ago. Co-founder Carl Sagan championed solar sailing on a famous 1976 episode of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. For complete coverage of the LightSail test flight, as well as the second LightSail mission scheduled for 2016, visit sail.planetary.org.
Visit the LightSail Press Kit for resources available for media usage, including: videos, photography, biographies and press releases.