The photons of the sun are the only fuel this profession needs

  • The Planetary Society is about to launch LightSail 2, a light crowdfunding ship.
  • LightSail 2 uses photons of the sun as fuel.
  • Space X's Falcom Heavy rocket will carry LightSail 2 up to 720 kilometers away.

In a letter of 1608 to his friend Galileo Galilei, the German astronomer Johannes Kepler described his idea of ​​traveling in space as follows:

"Provide ships or sails adapted to the heavenly breezes, and there will be someone who will also bring that void".

Looking at one of the 75-year-old land transits of what would be known as Halley's comet, he had rightly guessed that the enlargement of that comet's tail, or coma, was produced by sunlight that pushes the material out and away from the main object.

Kepler seemed to see the possibilities immediately – that is, a light sail.

Now – no later than 24 June 2019, at the time of writing – the Planetary society will launch the one they hope will be the first controlled light sail to enter and maintain the earth's orbit. Their crowdfunded Lightsail 2 they will ride aboard a Space X Falcon heavy rocket departing from the 39A Launch Complex at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida for a one-year orbit.

"This is a story in the making – LightSail 2 will fundamentally advance space flight technology," says Bill Nye, CEO of the Planetary Society.

Increasing slowly

The pieces of Kepler's dream are falling into place little by little from that letter to Galileo. The discovery of photons in the late 1800s by James Clerk Maxwell revealed energetic particles in light whose moment could be transferred to other objects.

Friedrich Zander imagined "the tremendous mirrors of very thin sheets" that pushed the aircraft into space, and then Carl Wiley had envisioned a solar sail as a shiny, reflective material, similar to a parachute opening in the direction of sunlight.

In 1976, Carl Sagan went on TV to show a demonstration model of a light sailing ship, enthusing on the extraordinary technology and its potential.

Among the students of Sagan about 40 years ago was Nye, a frequent collaborator of Big Think. The Company was founded by Sagan, Bruce Murray and Louis Friedman in 1980. In 2005, the Company launched the world's first light sail vessel, the Cosmos 1, aboard an ICBM with submarine. Unfortunately, it was lost when ICBM failed before allowing Cosmos 1 to fly alone.

About the planetary society

The Planetary Society is the largest non-profit space organization in the world, funded by over 50,000 members from over 100 countries and supported by hundreds of volunteers. The Company was founded as an outlet for the general public's interest in space, a level of interest that is not always reflected in government budgets. In addition to assembly projects like the LightSail aircraft, the Company acts as an educational link between the scientific community and the general public, supports solid government funding of space programs and offers everyone the opportunity to be involved in some real space sciences.

The Lightsail vessel of the company

At the center of every LightSail vessel, frankly beautiful, is a cube. While we tend to think of satellites as large, bus-sized objects, they can be much smaller for simpler missions. Cubes for the next LightSail 2, for example, are the size of a loaf.

At the time of launch, the cubes and sails are enclosed in four solar panels. Once in orbit, the panels stand up in an operational position, exposing the cubes and the stored sails.

The sails themselves are four shining sheets of Mylar with a thickness of 4.5 microns – thinner than a human hair. They are then pulled outward by four cobalt alloy arms that extend as tape measures. The process takes about three minutes. Once deployed, the triangular sails form a square of only 32 square meters, the size of a ring.

The primary force that must be overcome by LightSail is atmospheric resistance, its collision with gas particles in the upper atmosphere of the Earth. Think of it as a friction that makes a satellite slow down and then fall from the orbit. In order for an aircraft to capture enough "propellant" of photons – and to be high enough to move away from the upper atmosphere, its orbit must be greater than about 700 kilometers.

The Company has built two LightSail boats.

Image source: Planetary Society

LightSail 1

Around 2014, NASA offered the company a free ride aboard an Atlas V rocket as part of the agency's Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) program. Although the Lightsail vessel would have been placed in orbit below the necessary 700 kilometers, the Company decided to use one of their LightSail to test the mechanisms of the sail deployment system.

Nicknamed "LightSail 1", the sails have been successfully explained, as evidenced by this selfie taken from LightSail 1.

Image source: Planetary Society

And now LightSail 2

The second trade, now known and "LightSail 2", has been slightly modified – in particular its software – according to the information gathered during the first mission. It is scheduled to pick up from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida later this month on board a SpaceX Falcon Heavy as part of the US Air Force STP-2 mission from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

This time, LightSail 2 will be transported to another slightly larger satellite, Prox-1, developed by Georgia Tech students. The Prox-1 will be placed in orbit about 720 meters high, and a week later LightSail 2 will be launched.

After a few days of diagnostics, LightSail 2 will open its solar panels and then the next day it will open the sails. During the following month, he will continuously reposition the sun-related sails to increase its orbit: this is the main part of the mission, the actual solar navigation.

Completed the mission, the spaceship will orbit for about a year before the resistance suffers its toll, and LightSail 2 burns sharply through the atmosphere. During this year, his position will be tracked by laser beam on the groundand may be visible to the naked eye. The Company will offer an online dashboard that can tell you where and when to look for this most elegant spaceship.

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