LightSail is a project that consists of designing, building and launching a ultralight spacecraft able to be propelled by the solar light. In more words, the apparatus itself comprises of a small CubeSat central unit, housing sensors, cameras, control systems and electronic equipment and a large 340 square feet sail made out of mylar, a highly reflective polyester sheet with a thickness of 14 micrometers.
The sail has to be perfectly stretched and flat when deployed so that it captures the solar radiation and achieves propulsion thanks to the pressure of the photons pushing against the mylar film. Because the acceleration builds up continuously over a long period of time, high velocities can be achieved and it is estimated that for a sail with a size of 800 meters by 800 meters carrying a payload of 2 tons it would take about 400 days to reach Mars.
The idea belongs to The Planetary Society, a non-profit organization focused on space exploration. Bill Nye, the Science Guy, is the CEO and explains how much sense their idea makes based on the fact that the sun’s energy emission in the form of light is continuous and unlimited. It even is backed by a Kickstarter campaign and the initial goal of $200000 has been met threefold with 27 days left to go.
The Atlas V rocket launched on the 20th of May from Cape Canaveral carried the LightSail into low orbit for a series of preliminary tests to check the communications between it and control center. Also the extending of the arms that will support the sail was tested to see if they would deploy properly. But after two smooth days the spacecraft stopped sending data to Earth.
The abrupt ending of the transmissions was found to be caused by a software glitch and might be linked to the size of the files stored and sent by the satellite.
Since there is no way for the scientists to remotely reboot the system, there is not much for them to do, other than wait for the LightSail to fall back down to Earth due to atmospheric drag, which can take up to 10 days.
In the meantime, they hope that a charged space particle might hit the electronics on the spacecraft, causing a sudden reboot that could bring it back online and allow them to communicate again with the LightSail.
Hopefully, this will not affect too much the schedule of this project and measures will be taken to ensure a successful mission launch in April 2016, when the LightSail-1 spacecraft will be sent into higher orbit, at an altitude of 500 miles, during the first flight of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, and the sail will be completely unfolded for the first solar radiation powered flight.
Image Source: centauri-dreams