The LightSail 2 spacecraft will no longer ride in the sun.
The publicly funded Planetary Society’s Solar Sailing Ship has re-entered Earth’s atmosphere Thursday morning (November 17) after nearly 3.5 years in orbit — three times longer than its designed mission lifetime.
The LightSail 2 The team has not received any communications from the spacecraft since that date, leading them to conclude that the shoebox-sized craft finally gave up the ghost after completing 18,000 orbits and traveling 5 million miles (8 million km) around our planet.
“LightSail 2 has gone after more than three glorious years in the sky, blazing a trail of levitation with light, and proving we can defy gravity by sailing into space,” said science communication expert Bill Nye, CEO of the Planetary Society. statement (Opens in a new tab). “The mission was funded by tens of thousands of members of the Planetary Society, who want to advance space technology.”
RelatedLightSail 2 takes amazing pictures of Earth from space
LightSail 2 was the first small spacecraft to demonstrate solar-controlled sailing, harnessing photons from the sun to fine-tune its orbit. (LightSail 2 was not the first vehicle of any kind to sail solar powered in space, but Japan Icarus probe He did so in 2010.)
While light lacks mass, its individual particles – photons – carry a momentum that can be transferred to a reflective surface to give it a tiny bit of impulse.
LightSail 2 demonstrated that solar sailing is an efficient and viable propulsion method for small spacecraft, including small satellites known as cubesteam members said.
LightSail Program Director and Chief Scientist Bruce Bates writes at the Planetary Society statement (Opens in a new tab) This orbital ejection was always the fate of LightSail 2, though the mission’s fiery end took longer to unfold than expected.
The end of LightSail 2 was a drag
LightSail 2 was launched in June 2019 aboard SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, which is tasked with a one-year mission to demonstrate controlled solar sailing into orbit. It began operations about 450 miles (720 kilometers) above Earth — just above the orbit of the International Space Station (ISS).
At this altitude, Earth’s atmosphere is still thick enough to exert a slight drag on a spacecraft, and it is this effect that ultimately sealed LightSail 2’s fate.
Because of the spacecraft’s large solar sail area, which was 244 square feet (32 square meters)—about the size of a boxing ring—it experienced greater drag than other spacecraft of its mass.
Bates wrote: “Imagine throwing a rock compared to throwing a piece of paper. Atmospheric drag will stop paper much faster than rock. In our case, LightSail 2 is paper.” “A spacecraft like the International Space Station is huge but also huge, like a rock. But even the International Space Station has to be boosted higher every few weeks with rockets to compensate for the drag.”
During its third year of operations, in which it proved its most efficient solar sail, LightSail 2 experienced an increase in clouds in the atmosphere due to increased solar activity. This activity from the Sun has heated the atmosphere, making the region LightSail 2 passes through much denser.
“That was the beginning of the end,” Bates wrote. “As solar activity increased even further, solar sailing was unable to compete with the increasing clouds due to the denser atmosphere.”
Over the past several weeks, LightSail 2 has been dropping deeper and deeper into Earth’s atmosphere, experiencing more and more clouds, which in turn have dramatically increased its rate of decline.
“The spacecraft fell into an ever-increasing snowball effect: as the spacecraft descended, the density increased, causing the spacecraft to descend more rapidly,” Bates wrote.
While the LightSail 2 mission may be over, there is still scientific work to be done. The team behind the mission continues to analyze data collected by the rover, which has been running until its final moments.
This data will also be shared with future space missions that also use solar sails, such as NASA’s NEA Scout, which launched on the agency’s Artemis 1 mission on November 16 and will cruise on sunlight to travel to the moon and then on a near-Earth asteroid.
“Although sad to see it go,” Bates wrote, “all those who worked on this project and the 50,000 individual donors who funded the entire LightSail program should think of this as a proud moment.”
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