So­lar-sail test a suc­cess in space

The China Post - - LIFE - BY MAR­CIA DUNN

An ex­per­i­men­tal so­lar sail is be­ing called a suc­cess three weeks af­ter its ar­rival in space.

The Plan­e­tary So­ci­ety said Wed­nes­day its test flight re­sulted in an al­most full de­ploy­ment of the sail — an es­ti­mated 90-95 per­cent of the 32 square me­ters light and shiny sur­face — and has set the stage for a fol­low-up mission next year.

The goal is to cre­ate a sail that can be pro­pelled through space by sun­light, thus open­ing ex­plo­ration to prac­ti­cally any­one, any­where.

“So­lar sail­ing is worth do­ing be­cause it has the po­ten­tial to de­moc­ra­tize space,” said the so­ci­ety’s chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer, Bill Nye, more com­monly known as Bill Nye the Science Guy. Small or­ga­ni­za­tions will be able to build so­lar sails and send space­craft to “al­most any des­ti­na­tion in the so­lar sys­tem if you have time. You can get there be­cause you never run out of fuel. The sun shines all the time.”

Space­craft us­ing so­lar sails could be used to chase as­ter­oids and comets, or ob­serve the sun’s vi­o­lent storms.

“There re­ally isn’t much of a limit on what you can do in the so­lar sys­tem,” Nye told re­porters, “and this LightSail test flight is the first small step on that long jour­ney.”

The My­lar sail for the cur­rent LightSail space­craft is big­ger that many living rooms — 32 square me­ters when stretched flat. It was folded into a lit­tle boxy space­craft for its May 20 launch from Cape Canaveral, hitch­hik­ing on a se­cre­tive Air Force space plane mission.

For days, the LightSail team strug­gled with a se­ries of vex­ing soft­ware prob­lems with the space­craft once it reached or­bit. The sail fi­nally opened Sun­day on the third try. It wasn’t un­til see­ing a pic­ture beamed down of the open sail, on Tues­day, that the so­ci­ety could de­clare suc­cess.

“That was quite a thrill” see­ing the pic­ture, said project manager Doug Stet­son. “This has re­ally been a roller coaster ride of emo­tions, a lot of sleep­less nights.”

With its or­bit grad­u­ally de­clin­ing, LightSail is ex­pected to re-en­ter the at­mos­phere this week­end.

The so­ci­ety knew the flight would be short given LightSail’s rel­a­tively low or­bit. The main ob­jec­tive was to demon­strate the re­lease and op­er­a­tion of the sail. Next year’s space­craft will shoot for a higher or­bit and take a crack at true so­lar sail­ing.

A sim­i­lar ex­per­i­ment by the group ended in fail­ure 10 years ago this month when the Rus­sian rocket failed to put the so­lar sail in or­bit. This time, the so­ci­ety re­lied on an Amer­i­can At­las V rocket.

The LightSail project was funded by mem­bers and sup­port­ers of the Pasadena, Cal­i­for­nia-based Plan­e­tary So­ci­ety, a non­profit space in­ter­est group co-founded by the late Carl Sa­gan in 1980.


This Mon­day, June 8 photo pro­vided by The Plan­e­tary So­ci­ety shows the de­ployed pan­els on the LightSail in Earth or­bit. On Wed­nes­day, June 10, The Plan­e­tary So­ci­ety said its test flight re­sulted in an al­most full de­ploy­ment of the sail — an es­ti­mated 90 per­cent to 95 per­cent of the 32-square-me­ter light and shiny sur­face.

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