US space agency NASA and The Planetary Society have finally launched their first LightSail mission that will test technology for in-space solar propulsion as part of the agency’s CubeSat Launch Initiative. The mission was launched into space Wednesday aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.
The Planetary Society’s LightSail satellite is basically a technology demonstration for solar propulsion wherein the idea is to use the momentum transferred from solar photons as they strike a large, thin, reflective sail. This momentum would allow a spacecraft to accelerate continuously using only the sun’s energy.
The first LightSail mission, which has been specifically designed to test spacecraft’s critical system including the deployment sequence for the Mylar solar sail, will enable NASA to test if its plans of using solar sails on future exploration is a viable option. The data from this mission will advance understanding of this form of propulsion.
LightSail was selected as part of agency’s CubeSat Launch Initiative that provides opportunities for small satellites to fly as auxiliary payloads on planned missions. It was assigned to a launch as part of as the 11th installment of the Educational Launch of Nanosatellite (ELaNa) mission.
The upper stage of the Atlas V included the National Reconnaissance Office’s third auxiliary mission to launch CubeSats. The Ultra Lightweight Technology and Research Auxiliary Satellite (ULTRASat) carried 10 CubeSats — including LightSail — from five organizations. It was made possible through agreements between NASA, the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center and the National Reconnaissance Office to work together on CubeSat integration and launch opportunities.
The cube-shaped satellites measure about four inches on each side, have a volume of about one quart and weigh less than three pounds each. LightSail consists of three CubeSats bundled together. Individual CubeSat research projects may address science, exploration, technology development or education. During the next month, the LightSail team will receive data from the satellite in space. As part of its agreement with NASA, the Planetary Society will provide the agency a report on outcomes and scientific findings.