The Planetary Society’s LightSail test mission successfully completed its primary objective of deploying a solar sail in low-Earth orbit, mission managers said today. During a ground station pass over Cal Poly San Luis Obispo that began at 1:26 p.m. EDT (17:26 UTC), the final pieces of an image showcasing LightSail’s deployed solar sails were received on Earth. The image confirms the sails have unfurled, which was the final milestone of a shakedown mission designed to pave the way for a full-fledged solar sail flight in 2016.
The mission began May 20 with a launch from Cape Canaveral aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. The spacecraft fought its way through software glitches, two signal losses and unexpected battery behavior before finally deploying its solar sails on June 7.
The LightSail team is now downloading a second camera image from the opposite side of the spacecraft before it reenters Earth’s atmosphere. Because LightSail was directly between the sun and Earth at the time of image acquisition on June 8, it is believed the second photograph may include a view of Earth.
Next, engineers may “walk out” the sail booms to increase the tension on the sails, which could further flatten the wavy appearance of the Mylar. The image also appears slightly distorted due to the camera's fish-eye lens. The team will analyze all sail imagery and any tensioning results in preparation for next year’s flight, when LightSail operates in a higher orbit and uses sunlight for propulsion.
The Planetary Society is hosting a telepresser Wednesday afternoon at 1:30 p.m. EDT to discuss results of the mission. Credentialed media are invited to contact Erin Greeson at [email protected] for call-in information. Audio of the press conference will be streamed via LightSail’s Mission Control Center webpage.