After more than three years circling the Earth, the Planetary Society’s LightSail 2 mission has come to an end following a fiery reentry. The satellite was an important tech demo for the idea of solar sailing, which could eventually propel spacecraft to other stars.
LightSail 2 was launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket in June 2019, settling into an initial orbit at an altitude of around 720 km (450 miles). At that height, the Earth’s atmosphere is still thick enough to create drag, which would threaten to eventually pull the spacecraft down.
But that’s where the plucky little satellite’s special ability came in. Although it’s only the size of a shoebox, LightSail 2 unfurled a big reflective sheet, called a solar sail, about the size of a boxing ring. The idea is that photons from sunlight strike this sail and generate tiny amounts of thrust, allowing the craft to change its orbit.
And LightSail 2 demonstrated this concept beautifully. In three and a half years, the spacecraft completed around 18,000 orbits and traveled 8 million km (5 million miles), adjusting its orbit continuously to keep itself aloft. But all good things must come to an end, and sometime on November 17, drag finally won the tug-of-war and pulled the spacecraft back to Earth.
“During its extended mission LightSail 2 continued to teach us more about solar sailing and achieved its most effective solar sailing, but that was followed by an increase in atmospheric drag in part from increasing solar activity,” said Bruce Betts, LightSail program manager. “The spacecraft is gone, but data analyses and sharing of results will continue.”
The data from LightSail 2 will inform future solar sailing missions, including the Near Earth Asteroid (NEA) Scout, which coincidentally launched on LightSail 2’s last day in operation. Shot into space aboard NASA’s Artemis I mission to the Moon on November 16, NEA Scout will rendezvous with asteroid 2020 GE and snap close-up images of it. It’ll get there using a solar sail measuring 86 sq m (926 sq ft), more than 2.5 times larger than that of LightSail 2.
Longer term, it’s thought that light sails coupled with powerful lasers could help us reach other star systems in as little as 20 years.
Source: The Planetary Society