Solar sail spacecraft begins extended mission

WASHINGTON — A smallsat launched a 12 months in the past to display photo voltaic sail applied sciences continues to function and is now starting an prolonged mission.

LightSail 2, a cubesat launched in June 2019 to display {that a} photo voltaic sail might change the orbit of a spacecraft, formally began an prolonged mission June 25, the one-year anniversary of its launch on a Falcon Heavy as one of many payloads on the Area Check Program 2 mission.

LightSail 2 was deployed by one other smallsat, Prox-1, days after launch and, later in July, deployed a 32-square-meter Mylar sail. The Planetary Society, which funded the mission, declared the mission a hit on the finish of July 2019 as a result of the spacecraft had modified its orbit utilizing the sail.

“We’re going to a better orbital altitude with out rocket gas, simply from the push of daylight,” Invoice Nye, chief government of The Planetary Society, stated in a briefing then about LightSail 2.

A better evaluation of the spacecraft’s orbital parameters confirmed that its apogee, or excessive level in its orbit, had certainly elevated by a number of kilometers. Nevertheless, its perigee, or low level in orbit, had decreased by a number of kilometers. The spacecraft’s common altitude had not elevated; relatively, the eccentricity of its orbit had elevated.

At a June 25 webinar to mark the one-year anniversary of the launch and the start of LightSail 2’s prolonged mission, Planetary Society officers centered extra on the photo voltaic sail’s skill to regulate the spacecraft’s orbit relatively than increase it. “Our overarching purpose, technologically, was to display managed cubesat photo voltaic sail propulsion,” stated Bruce Betts, LightSail program supervisor and chief scientist at The Planetary Society. “We’ve achieved that.”

When the group introduced the preliminary success of LightSail 2 final 12 months, they stated they anticipated atmospheric drag to quickly overwhelm the thrust from the sail, inflicting the spacecraft’s orbit to decay. On the time, they thought LightSail 2 might reenter inside a 12 months.

Nevertheless, the spacecraft stays in orbit at a mean altitude of greater than 700 kilometers. David Spencer, LightSail 2 venture supervisor, stated that when the photo voltaic sail is managed, the spacecraft’s orbit decays at about 20 meters per day. When the sail shouldn’t be actively managed, the orbit decays at a price of 34 meters per day. The distinction, he stated, “is the impact we’re having when it comes to sail management, utilizing photo voltaic strain to struggle atmospheric drag.”

Within the prolonged mission, spacecraft controllers will proceed to optimize the efficiency of the sail. The Planetary Society has an settlement with NASA to share data on LightSail 2 to assist the event of NEA Scout, a NASA cubesat mission that can use a photo voltaic sail to fly by a close to Earth asteroid. NEA Scout is a secondary payload on Artemis 1, the primary Area Launch System mission, scheduled to launch late subsequent 12 months.

How lengthy LightSail 2 will stay in orbit isn’t clear. “Numerous it is dependent upon how efficient we’re in photo voltaic crusing,” Spencer stated. Nevertheless, he concluded it’s doubtless the spacecraft will stay in orbit nicely into 2021. “I might guess it’s going to be a while subsequent 12 months, the second half of subsequent 12 months” earlier than it deorbits.

Planetary Society executives, as they did final 12 months, stated there are not any plans for the group to pursue a LightSail 3 mission of some variety. “We’re not the ‘Photo voltaic Crusing Society.’ This isn’t our enterprise,” stated Jennifer Vaughn, chief working officer of the group.

As an alternative, she stated the society will look extra broadly for concepts, which might embody photo voltaic sails in addition to different applied sciences, that may be superior by the group by means of contributions from its members, as was the case with the LightSail program. “We’re going to proceed what we’ve all the time achieved, which it to search for nice venture concepts that want crowdfunding and help, and put our cash in these instructions,” she stated. That shall be achieved by means of an open name for proposals issued each different 12 months.

“That is according to what now we have achieved for years,” Nye stated of plans to hunt proposals for brand spanking new tasks. “We’re going to be searching for the following cool factor.”

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