Feb 19, 2021

NASA Solar Sails Build on LightSail 2

A pair of upcoming NASA solar sail missions will take flight by light to new heights, revealing the surface of an asteroid and testing a sail large enough to cover six tennis courts.

NEA Scout is a NASA mission launching to the Moon in 2021 that will use a solar sail to visit a near-Earth asteroid. NASA has also greenlit Solar Cruiser, a mission launching in 2025 to test a giant sail measuring 1,650 square meters (17,800 square feet) at an artificial orbit between the Earth and Sun.

The Planetary Society’s LightSail 2, which has spent 18 months in Earth orbit, is part of a solar sail lineage that makes NEA Scout and Solar Cruiser possible. Based on NASA’s Nanosail-D2 sail spacecraft, LightSail 2 became in 2019 the first spacecraft to demonstrate controlled solar sailing in Earth orbit, a feat that requires continual, quick maneuvers. NASA and The Planetary Society collaborate and exchange data on LightSail 2 and NEA Scout through a Space Act Agreement.

“People often ask us whether there will be a LightSail 3, and in many ways, that’s what NEA Scout and Solar Cruiser are,” said Bruce Betts, Planetary Society chief scientist and the LightSail program manager. “These missions are logical next steps that further advance solar sail technology. We’re honored to contribute by sharing what we’ve learned through our ongoing LightSail 2 mission and are thrilled that NASA is moving forward with these exciting solar sail missions.”

NEA Scout launches to the Moon in 2021 with a fleet of other small satellites aboard Artemis 1, the inaugural test flight of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket. SLS will blast the Orion crew vehicle on a mission to lunar orbit and back.

In 2025 Solar Cruiser will take solar sailing to a new level by testing a sail an order of magnitude larger than any flown before. Solar Cruiser will hitch a ride to space with NASA’s Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe, IMAP. IMAP will study how the constant flow of charged particles coming from our Sun known as the solar wind interacts with cosmic radiation coming from the rest of the universe. This interaction creates a bubble that surrounds and protects our solar system.


Les Johnson, the principal investigator for NEA Scout and Solar Cruiser at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, credits LightSail for bringing solar sailing into the mainstream.


“I think the technical work that The Planetary Society did, as well as the outreach and awareness and education component, has been really critical toward making this capability more real in the minds of decision-makers and scientists and people interested in sailing,” he said during a recent Planetary Radio interview.



Oct 26, 2020

LightSail 2 Enters Extended Mission Phase




One year after launching into space, The Planetary Society's LightSail 2 spacecraft has completed its primary mission phase and is embarking on an extended mission dedicated to further advancing solar sailing technology. 

During the past year, the LightSail 2 mission team has continued to optimize the spacecraft’s performance and report their results to the space science community. The Planetary Society will now operate LightSail 2 under an extended mission phase, making various operational refinements and studying how the spacecraft’s orbit evolves in response. 

“We’ve learned a lot about solar sailing over the past year, and LightSail 2 still has a lot to teach us,” said Planetary Society chief scientist and LightSail 2 program manager Bruce Betts. “During our extended mission, we’ll continue making changes to our sail control software, which will help future solar sail missions optimize their performance. We also plan to test using the sail to intentionally generate additional atmospheric drag, which is a way in which future spacecraft could deorbit themselves, cutting down on the ever-growing amount of space debris.”

LightSail 2’s average orbital altitude—now roughly 707 kilometers (439 miles)—is slowly decreasing. Though the spacecraft orbits Earth higher than the International Space Station, the planet’s atmosphere is still thick enough to counteract the thrust gained from solar sailing. Analyses of orbital data show that LightSail 2’s rate of orbital decay is markedly slower in solar sailing mode when the craft actively positions itself to get a push from sunlight. During some time intervals, the spacecraft even gains enough thrust to briefly overcome atmospheric drag and raise its orbit.

After a year in space, LightSail 2 remains healthy, except for a few minor problems. Images show one of the tape measure-like sail booms has buckled, and analysis of shadows from the spacecraft’s solar panels shows that one panel is not fully deployed. Neither of these issues has greatly impacted LightSail 2’s solar sailing performance, nor have there been major impacts from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic since team members can operate the spacecraft remotely.

The LightSail 2 extended mission is expected to continue as long as the spacecraft remains healthy, or until its orbit decays and the spacecraft reenters Earth’s atmosphere many months from now. 


Jun 26, 2020

Celebrating the end of LightSail's primary mission!

We are so excited to begin LightSail's extended operations, after the successful completion of its primary mission on June 25, 2020, the one-year anniversary of its launch aboard the SpaceX Falcon Heavy.

In case you weren't able to attend yesterday's webinar with LightSail's project and program managers, Planetary Society leadership, and our CEO Bill Nye, here is the link to the YouTube recording on The Planetary Society's channel.

We hope you enjoy it, and we want to thank you again for your support of this project.  As Bill says in the video, "Carl Sagan would be very proud of this project". Our LightSail spacecraft is the culmination of an idea dating back hundreds of years, and a project The Planetary Society has been working on for decades.

We appreciate your being a part of it. If you've not yet become a member of The Planetary Society, or want to share the opportunity with friends and family, simply go to planetary.org and choose your preferred level of membership, starting at only $4.00 per month.  

Stay safe and keep looking up.




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