A cadre of CubeSats including The Planetary Society’s LightSail spacecraft completed a cross-country journey from California to Florida, where they await installation as a secondary payload aboard an Atlas V rocket. NASA and the U.S. Air Force also released the nomenclature of the rocket’s primary and secondary payloads, and a preliminary launch date has been set for May 6.
LightSail, a 3-unit CubeSat about the size of a loaf of bread, is a part of a flock of spacecraft dubbed ULTRASat. ULTRASat contains an array of Poly-Picosatellite Orbital Deployers, or P-PODS, which are used to spring CubeSats into space. LightSail and its P-POD were integrated to ULTRASat at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. on Jan. 22. ULTRASat has now shipped to Cape Canaveral, where it will be attached to the Atlas V.
The launch date is currently listed as no earlier than May 6. The rocket’s primary payload is designated AFSPC-5, an acronym that stands for Air Force Space Command.
LightSail is flying under the banner of NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites program—ELaNa. This iteration of the program is ELaNa XI, and LightSail is the only ELaNa member booking a ride aboard ULTRASat. The May flight is a shakedown cruise designed to test LightSail’s systems ahead of a full-fledged solar sailing demonstration in 2016.
The Planetary Society is finalizing a web dashboard that will display LightSail’s ground track and telemetry data. The data will include temperature readings, power levels and rotation rates as LightSail soars around the globe, stabilizing itself using Earth’s magnetic field.
While LightSail will not be visible to the naked eye during its four-week checkout phase, it may be viewable from some locations around dawn and dusk after the sails are deployed. Visitors to the LightSail dashboard will receive predictions on when the spacecraft will be visible from their location. However, due to atmospheric drag, the 2015 test mission is expected to end just two to ten days after sail deployment.
Meanwhile, work progresses on the Society’s second LightSail spacecraft, dubbed LightSail 2, which will fly to a circular, 720-kilometer orbit in 2016—high enough to demonstrate controlled solar sailing and create more viewing opportunities. LightSail 2 will be paired with Prox-1, a small Georgia Tech spacecraft designed to demonstrate automated rendezvous and inspection techniques.
The lessons learned while preparing for the LightSail test mission are already being applied to LightSail 2. Currently planned improvements include radio upgrades, new stiffener brackets and additional mirrors that will be used for ground-based laser ranging. These upgrades are being performed by Ecliptic Enterprises Corporation, the project’s prime contractor. Additionally, the second LightSail spacecraft will use a momentum wheel and sun sensors to tack like a sailboat, allowing to turn toward and away from the sun’s continual stream of photons.