By Leah Crane
LightSail 2 has set sail on the solar breeze. Over the previous couple of days, the spacecraft has demonstrated regulated solar cruising in orbit around Earth for the very first time.
The small spacecraft was developed by the Planetary Society, a space advocacy group led by the United States science communicator Bill Nye. It was introduced aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket on 25 June and unfurled its sails from their boxes on 23 July.
The Planetary Society revealed late yesterday that operators had raised the spacecraft’s orbit by about 1.7 kilometres, finishing its primary objective of demonstrating that solar sails work and can be used to steer.
” Today we declare objective success– we are going to a greater orbital elevation, without rocket fuel, simply from the push of sunshine,” Nye said. “We can cruise on sunlight.”
Solar sails are moved by photons from the sun. As the photons bounce off a lightweight, mirrored sail, they provide it a little amount of energy that presses it forward, like wind in a sail on the sea.
LightSail 2’s sails are thinner than a human hair and their total area is 32 square metres. Each photon imparts a tiny amount of energy to the sails, but in time the momentum includes up and the spacecraft constantly accelerates.
Friction from Earth’s environment will ultimately slow LightSail 2 down up until it falls towards the ground and burns up in the air. “LightSail 2 will fly for another practically a year, and we are gon na discover a lot about managing the spacecraft and the performance of the sails in the coming months,” Nye said.
That will assist future light sails, which might be able to propel little spacecraft to other worlds in the solar system, and possibly even beyond. They do not need heavy chemical fuel like standard spacecraft, so in theory they can speed up to a considerable portion of the speed of light, especially if they are moved by effective lasers rather of sunlight.
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