The Planetary Society, the world’s largest and most influential space interest group, announces that its LightSail solar sail spacecraft will reach space on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch in 2016. The announcement was made during a live webcast on July 9th.
“It's fantastic that at last we have a launch date for this pioneering mission,” said Planetary Society CEO Bill Nye The Science Guy. “When I was in engineering school, I read the book about solar sailing by my predecessor, Society co-founder Louis Friedman. But the dream of sailing on light alone goes back much further.”
The Planetary Society also has a long history of solar sail activity. In June of 2005 the Society attempted to launch Cosmos 1, which would have been the first solar sail in space. The failure of a Russian booster doomed that effort, but the Society never gave up the dream of sailing the cosmos on the gentle yet constant pressure exerted by sunlight. Solar sailing promises tremendous advantages over traditional chemical rockets. There is no need to carry fuel for complex rocket engines, as the Sun provides an endless source of energy for propulsion. Solar sailing and related techniques have been called the only practical way to reach other stars.
While there have been other solar sail missions in the last decade—notably Japan’s IKAROS—none have attempted what LightSail will. Begin with the fact that it is funded by Planetary Society members and other citizen supporters. Technologies developed for LightSail may enable other small, interplanetary spacecraft to achieve success. The creation and launch of CubeSats is within reach of universities and other organizations that could once only dream of flying their own missions.
CubeSats utilize a standard design based on 10-centimeter (about 4-inch) cubes. LightSail is three cubes, or just 30 centimeters long. Tucked inside this tiny package are four ultra-thin Mylar sails that will be deployed a few weeks after orbital insertion. These brilliantly reflective wings will expand to 32 square meters (344 square feet), making LightSail easily visible to naked eye observers on Earth.
LightSail will reach Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) stored inside another innovative spacecraft: Prox-1. Prox-1 has been developed by the Georgia Institute of Technology to demonstrate new technologies enabling two spacecraft to work in close proximity. After ejecting LightSail, the largely student-built Prox-1 will track and image LightSail, including the sail deployment.
Carrying Prox-1 and LightSail to MEO will be the new Falcon Heavy, the most powerful rocket ever built by SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, and the largest since the Saturn V that delivered Apollo astronauts to the Moon.
A test flight of LightSail on a smaller rocket may also be conducted in 2015. This flight will only reach low earth orbit (LEO), where there is still too much atmosphere for a solar sail to function. It will nevertheless allow the LightSail team to check the operation of vital systems in the extreme environment of space. That team includes faculty and students at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.
Solar sailing and space fans around the world learned of and celebrated the LightSail launch plans in a live, July 9th webcast at KPCC/Southern California Public Radio’s Crawford Family Forum in Pasadena, California. The program featured a distinguished panel that includes Bill Nye, LightSail Project Manager Doug Stetson, and famed science fiction author David Brin.