After a series of technical hurdles following last month’s launch, LightSail craft was finally able to unfurl its sail and beam back an artistic selfie.
LightSail is a project sponsored by the Planetary Society, the non-for-profit group headed by Bill “the Science Guy” Nye whose main goal is space exploration.
The kite-shaped spacecraft is a solar sail craft, or a space vehicle designed to use sunlight for propulsion. This technology is one of the cheapest space traveling options to date with long operating lifetimes. And LightSail is the first to test it in space.
But over the course of a single week, LightSail gave its makers heart thumps twice. First, there was this Sunday incident when the craft was ordered to unfurl its 345-square-foot-wide sail and 13-foot booms, but the vehicle stood still. Nevertheless it revived moments later.
When it entered orbit, LightSail was ordered again and its electric motor was finally turned on. The telemetry readings of nearly 135,000 turns of the motor indicated that the sail was fully extended.
Bill Nye deemed the deployment “perfect” and beyond anybody’s expectations. If everything goes according to the plan next year as well, humanity may be able to solar-sail across space anytime soon.
Solar-sailing technology does not involve any type of fuel for propulsion so is a dramatically cheap method of space traveling.
On Monday morning, the vehicle tried to send back to Earth two pictures it had taken. Yet, another incident occurred, since the images looked scrambled and no one seemed to know what have happened. When researchers downloaded the pictures again, they were able to see a fraction of the fully extended sail.
Emily Lakdawalla, the Planetary Society’s senior editor, was the one who managed to unscramble the images and generate a clear view on the unfurled sail. As of Tuesday, the final photo was downloaded.
“Then we got the big beautiful shot,”
said William Sanford Nye, the former host of the now-defunct preteen science show “Bill Nye the Science Guy” which aired on PBS Kids in the nineties.
Nye’s team explained that the booms were not extended to the maximum since engineers do not yet know how much they would expand in the direct sunlight. The team needs more photos before pushing them out a little more. They fear that the booms may buckles in the process.
They also explained that this week LightSail would be pushed out of orbit by the tension created by a sharp difference between the drag of the sail in the upper atmosphere and the propulsion power of sunlight. As of 2016, the team plans to launch another LightSail, into a higher orbit.
Image Source: NBC News