Science

The LightSail 2 solar sail still towers over Earth more than two years after launch

An experimental spacecraft testing solar sails as a cost-effective means of space propulsion that could power future missions to distant locations continues to ride the sun’s rays into Earth’s orbit more than two and a half years after launch.

The spacecraft, called LightSail 2, is a cube the size of a loaf of bread, but equipped with a solar sail the size of a boxing ring: it covers about 433 square feet (32 square meters). This sail captures incoming photons from the sun, much like a wind sail catches moving air, to propel the spacecraft.

LightSail 2 is a private project of the Planetary Society, a US-based nonprofit space education and outreach organization.But the results of the experiment have already informed the design of upcoming NASA missions, such as NEA Scout, Solar Cruiser and ASC3, which will also rely on solar sails, the Planetary Society said in a statement on Monday (November 15). NEA Scout, one of the “passengers” on NASA’s upcoming Artemis 1 moon-bound mission, will use solar propulsion technology to leave the moon’s orbit and visit a near-Earth asteroid.

Related: A Solar Sail in Space – See the Stunning Views from LightSail 2

LightSail 2 does not use the solar sail to go to distant places, but simply to stay in orbit above the Earth. The spacecraft is currently orbiting at an altitude of 687 kilometers (426 miles) where the planet’s residual atmosphere causes friction. This friction under normal circumstances would slow the satellite down and bring it back to Earth, but the power of the candle makes up for it. The spacecraft initially managed to raise its orbit using only the solar sail. Now, little by little he is losing his battle with the atmosphere, but this process is happening much more slowly than without the candle.

“Thanks to the optimized orientation of the sails over time, the altitude drop rates over the past few months have been the best of the entire mission,” the Planetary Society said in the statement. “The thrust even occasionally exceeded atmospheric drag, raising the spacecraft’s orbit slightly.”

The $ 7 million mission, collectively funded by donors and launched in 2019, benefited from a quiet period in the 11-year solar cycle, which, however, recently ended. In recent months, more sunspots have been forming on the sun’s surface, and powerful flares have launched huge amounts of charged particles into surrounding space. These particles, in the form of the solar wind, reach Earth where they interact with the planet’s atmosphere, making it thicker.

“Below-average solar activity has kept Earth’s upper atmosphere thin for much of the mission, creating less drag on the sail,” the Planetary Society said in the statement. “That has changed recently, with the sun becoming more active and emitting significant solar flares. The LightSail 2 team believes that this activity is probably now causing higher orbital decay rates than previously observed in the mission.”

Camera 1 of LightSail 2 captures the deployment of the ship’s solar sail. (Image credit: The Planetary Society)

During its mission, LightSail 2 captured some amazing images of its home planet using its two fisheye cameras, including snapshots of Tropical Storm Mirinae, which approached the coast of Japan during the Tokyo Olympics in August this year. anus.

The purpose of these fisheye cameras is primarily to monitor the condition of the solar sail. Experts have already noticed some signs that the glider may be wearing out. The Society’s calculations predict that the spacecraft should stay afloat for at least one more year.

Follow Tereza Pultarova on Twitter @TerezaPultarova. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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