The power of sunlight used for spacecraft propulsion


“Our criteria was to demonstrate controlled solar sailing in a CubeSat by changing the spacecraft’s orbit using only the light pressure of the Sun, something that’s never been done before,” says Bruce Betts, LightSail program manager and the Society’s chief scientist. In the eight days of demonstration, the spacecraft has raised its orbit by 1.7 kilometres, pushed along solely by the Sun’s photons, which ‘bounce off’ its reflective sails. It can use this new form of propulsion to actually change its orbit. It gets enough energy from the Sun no matter where it is. “We are learning a lot from LightSail 2 right now,” said Bill Nye, the CEO of The Planetary Society.


Prelaunch simulations predicted that as solar propulsion adds up, it would increase the craft’s orbit by about half a kilometre per day; in fact, the spacecraft increased by around 900 metres (2,950 ft) just the other day. Scientists have proposed using this technology in the search for alien life, monitoring weather on the Sun and as a warning system for incoming asteroids. “This technology enables us to take things to extraordinary destinations in the Solar System and maybe even beyond, in a way that was never possible before,” Vyie said.


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