Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Planetary Society is Launching a Lightsail

          by Sarah Ansari-Manea

The Planetary Society, a US based non-government, nonprofit organization involved in research and engineering projects related to astronomy, planetary science, exploration, public outreach and political advocacy, has announced the launch dates of their exciting, and long awaited LightSail mission.

Once in space, it will become the world’s first CubeSat to “fly by light."

The CubeSat, along with parent satellite, Prox-1, will be launched on board a SpaceX Falcon Heavy, in April 2016, according to the July 9th, 2014 Planetary Society press release "LightSail has a launch date!"

Over $4Mln USD was raised for the LightSail-1 mission by the Planetary Society, which compares well with other recent publicly funded private space initiatives such as the ISEE-3 Reboot Project (which raised $160,000 USD earlier this year via crowd funding service RocketHub to reactivate and utilize a 1970's era NASA satellite) and the 2013 initiative from Planetary Resources (which raised $1.5Mln via Kickstarter for its Arkyd space telescope).

Bill Nye. Photo c/o Planetary Society.
The United States Air Force, and Georgia Institute of Technology, responsible for developing the Prox-1, will cover the launch costs according to the July 10th, 2014 Universe Today article, "The Planetary Society’s Solar Sail Will Hitch a Ride to Space on a Falcon Heavy."

It's fantastic that at last we have a launch date for this pioneering mission,” said Planetary Society CEO Bill ("the science guy") Nye. “When I was in engineering school, I read the book about solar sailing by my predecessor, Society co-founder Louis Friedman. But the dream of sailing on light alone goes back much further.

According to the July 10th, 2014 Planetary Society blog post "LightSail update: Launch dates," the LightSail-1 will start out as a two-unit cube-sat, composed of a parent (Prox-1) plus a solar sailing cube-sat (LightSail-B).

The post references Jason Davis of the Planetary Society, who explained the specifications of the mission further: “Prox-1 and LightSail-B will be released into a circular orbit with an altitude of 720 kilometers (450 miles). After spending a couple weeks going through various checkouts, Prox-1 will release LightSail-B. Prox-1 will then rendezvous with LightSail-B using a thermal imaging camera for navigation, flying as close as 50 meters."

A second cube-sat (Lightsail-A), identical to Lightsail-B, could also potentially be launched on board a US Air Force Atlas V flight as part of NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) program for preliminary testing in April 2015.

The Planetary Society’s decade long dream to fly by light was delayed, but not destroyed back in 2005. The Cosmos 1 spacecraft, destined to launch from a rocket off a Russian submarine, had technical difficulties, which caused the rocket’s engine to flame out prematurely, dooming the spacecraft. If successful, Cosmos 1 would have been the first successful solar sail in space.

Of course, that honour was finally won by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) on May 21st, 2010, when the agency launched the Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun (IKAROS) spacecraft, which deployed a 200 square metre polyimide experimental solar sail on June 10th. Solar pressure has also been used as a method to conserve attitude-control propellant and tested as a means of de-orbiting dead satellites and space debris.

In essence, solar sailing has its many benefits and can prove to be incredibly advantageous over the current chemical rockets used. From the endless amount of sunlight necessary to propel spacecrafts, to the greatly reduced weight from carrying fuel, it is said by many that it is proving to be “the only practical way to reach other stars.

Sarah Ansari-Manea.
The Planetary Society continues to demonstrate and help lead the charge in awareness for space exploration, and their latest mission is already inspiring a new generation of universities and organizations wanting to send their own, privately funded, miniaturized satellites into space.

Sarah Ansari-Manea is an aspiring astrophysicist, currently completing a specialist in physics and astronomy at the University of Toronto.

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