On June 25th, 2019, The Planetary Society‘s cubesat spacecraft known as LightSail 2 lifted off from the NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida aboard a Falcon Heavy rocket. This was the second solar sail launched the Society, the first (LightSail 1) having been sent into space in 2015. Like its predecessor, the purpose of this spacecraft is to demonstrate the technology that would allow for solar sails operating within Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
Since reaching orbit, the LightSail 2 has been indicated that it is in good working order, as indicated by the Mission Control Dashboard recently introduced by The Planetary Society. In addition to establishing two-way communications with mission controllers and passing a battery of checkouts, the spacecraft also took its first pictures of Earth (and some selfies for good measure).
LightSail 2 is the third attempt to send a light sail spacecraft into orbit by the global non-profit society, which is devoted to promoting space exploration and the technologies that enable it. The first was Cosmos 1, a larger lightsail that launched in 2005, but which failed to reach its intended orbit due to an unforeseen failure with the rocket.
Their next attempt, LightSail 1, was launched on May 20th, 2015, atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket. This technology demonstrator managed to make it to orbit, but a series of software malfunction two days into the mission caused the ground crew to lose communications with the spacecraft, as well as preventing the sail from deploying from the cubesat that was carrying it.
Over the next few days, communications were reestablished and lost several times, and the sail finally deployed on June 7th. By June 14th, after declaring the test flight a success, the spacecraft reentered and burned up in Earth’s atmosphere. This latest launch is therefore meant to build on the successes and learn from the failures of the past.
Shortly after the launch, famed science communicator Bill Nye tweeted about the mission’s success and shared a video. In it, Nye reiterated The Planetary Society’s purpose and thanked the public for helping to make the mission possible:
“SpaceX Falcon Heavy took our LightSail [up] and [to] orbit, thanks to you. Thank you all so much. We are advancing space science and exploration, we are democratizing space, we are innovating, we are working the answer to the two deep questions: where do we come from and are we alone? All because of you. So thank you.”
LightSail 2 captured this picture of Earth’s limb on 6 July 2019 at 04:41 UTC from a camera mounted on its dual-sided solar panels. Credit: The Planetary Society
Since reaching orbit, the Planetary Society has been providing regular updates on the mission. The public is also encouraged to get status reports from the spacecraft in near-real-time using the LightSail 2 Mission Control dashboard that recently went live. Updates are transmitted from the craft every few seconds via a 334-line text file containing health and status information.
This including temperatures, battery levels, spacecraft rotation rates, and the status of the sail. This data is then analyzed by the team and displayed on the dashboard, the entire archive of which is available for download. On the evening of Friday, June 5th, the mission controllers reported that the CubeSat’s dual-sided solar panels had successfully been deployed.
Shortly thereafter, LightSail 2‘s solar panel-mounted cameras took the spacecraft’s first pictures of Earth. These showed an illuminated crescent as the spacecraft headed into orbital sunset. In the second photograph, pieces of the fishing line-like material (spectraline) used to hold the solar panels closed can be seen drifting away from the spacecraft.
As of the writing of this article, the dashboard indicates that the spacecraft’s lightSail – which is scheduled to deploy today (June 9th) at the earliest – is still stowed. And with seven days and ten hours having elapsed since the mission reached orbit, LightSail 2 is already the longest-running mission launched by The Planetary Society.