Planetary Society Is Confident That LightSail Is Safe for Now

Planetary Society

The LightSail, an experimental craft financed through a crowdfunding project, made contact today, leaving members of the Planetary Society confident that LightSail is safe for now. The spacecraft had been out of reach of scientists for eight days. Scientists said the absence of communication was caused by a software glitch.

Planetary Society members were relieved when the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo ground station received an automated radio chirp. That was followed by another eight minutes later at 5:29 p.m., according to the society’s blog. Scientists said the craft’s position remains unclean and that makes two-way communication difficult. Engineers are comparing the signal received with models to pinpoint a location.

Planetary Society scientists said it is expected to get another response from LightSail when it passes the next ground station at Georgia Technical Institute at 5:30 a.m. on Monday. A patch that scientists hope will fix a vulnerability of the craft is still being tested, but reboots could come into play in order to provide more time that scientists and engineers need. The team wants to initiate deployment of the sail as soon as possible because of the craft’s recent eight-day absence from communication.

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V, sent into space on Wednesday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, carried the solar sail along with other CubeSats,  into space. It also carried the Air Force X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, dubbed a “secret plane.” The vehicle is flown without a crew, controlled like a drone and lands like an airplane. It resembles a small shuttle. It has been used on four missions with the last mission in October 2014. One of its key features is the vehicle can stay in space for several years.

The LightSail is small, really no bigger than a bread loaf. However, its reflective sales will stretch to 344 square feet in space. The Planetary Society, a non-profit space advocacy group led by science guy Bill Nye, developed the LightSail to see if the sun’s energy can be channeled to power a spacecraft. The idea is for the sail to catch steady radiation from the sun to maneuver the craft. The method has its pitfalls. A spacecraft using this energy would move more slowly and it would take a small satellite a month, rather than days, to reach the moon.

That will not come to fruition this time around, according to society members. This trip to space is to see if the everything works on the craft. Scientist will be testing the sail to make sure it properly deploys and will be testing the software to make sure it works. Another key component of testing is to make sure engineers can maintain communication with the craft, which marks the response from the craft today as a success. The LightSail is expected to be in orbit for a month, society members said.

LightSail is the first major space project funded by the public. It was paid for by large gifts from anonymous donors and smaller donations from more than 40,000 members of the Air Force Space and Missile History Center. More than $4.3 million was raised by the Planetary Society to fund the LightSail mission.

Nye could not be more pleased with how the mission is going. He said further development of LightSail capabilities would make space travel cheaper and convenient.

“You can go to very distant destinations in the solar system without any fuel. You can do it much more cheaply,” Nye told reporters after the launch. He said satellites would sail through space in a tracking form, like a sailboat.

Scientists said the craft is not completely out of danger. The team will feel easier about the project once a response comes in on Monday. Until then, Planetary Society members are confident that LightSail is safe for now.

By Melody Darieng

CNN: Secret space plane, solar sail and CubeSats launching Wednesday

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Photo Courtesy of NASA Marshall Space Flight Flickr Page – Creative Commons License

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